Unified Vision

McQueen prioritizes literacy, early learning, teacher prep in five-year strategic plan

The state's new education plan, called Tennessee Succeeds, was released Thursday by the Tennessee Department of Education.

State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced a strategic plan Thursday to elevate Tennessee academically from one of the nation’s lowest performing states to the top half within five years.

Dubbed “Tennessee Succeeds,” the ambitious plan outlines strategies such as improving early learning programs, including pre-kindergarten, to build literacy skills; revamping teacher preparation; and focusing the role of high school counselors.

The plan’s three objectives are to:

  • Lift Tennessee’s ranking from the bottom half to the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019;
  • Raise the statewide average ACT composite score from 19.4 to 21 — the current national average — by 2020 in Tennessee public schools;
  • Ensure that the majority of high school graduates from the Class of 2020 earn a postsecondary certificate, diploma or degree. (Only 24 percent of the state’s graduates currently complete postsecondary programs, while almost 60 percent enroll in them.)

Noting that Tennessee is one of the fastest-improving states in the nation, McQueen credited the state’s focus on higher standards and increased accountability, while working to better align state assessments to match higher expectations.

“Now it is time to build on that foundation and focus on some priorities that take us to the next level — in literacy, teacher preparation, and postsecondary readiness,” McQueen said in a news release.

Tennessee has made gains across the board on the most recent edition of the Nation’s Report Card in 2013, and is leading the way to college access through its new Tennessee Promise scholarship program, which provides up to two years of free community college for eligible graduates. But for all its growth, Tennessee test scores, especially related to literacy, have remained stubbornly low.

The 18-page plan includes learning strategies for addressing children from infancy to high school and beyond.

On the heels of a troubling Vanderbilt University study suggesting that children in Tennessee’s current state-funded pre-K program gain little, if anything, over the long run, McQueen said the state Education Department is committed to improving pre-K across the board. She said a kindergarten readiness screener now under development will help determine which pre-K programs are up to snuff.

Much of the early learning work is focused on literacy and is part of a pair of initiatives — called “Ready to Read” and “Read to be Ready” — that McQueen detailed to Chalkbeat in August.

Gov. Bill Haslam reviews the five-year plan during a meeting with top Department of Education officials on Sept. 23.
Gov. Bill Haslam reviews the five-year plan during a meeting with top Department of Education officials on Sept. 23.

Underlying all aspects of the plan is changing how teachers are trained in Tennessee, especially around special education, English language learners, literacy and Response to Intervention, a method of screening students early for academic weakness.

McQueen said district superintendents and directors especially welcomed the prioritization of teacher preparation after seeing an early preview of the plan during a conference last month in Gatlinburg.

“Every superintendent I’ve talked to says teacher prep is important and something we need to work on,” she said during a briefing with reporters.

Gary Lilly, director of Bristol City Schools and president-elect of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, commended the state Department of Education Thursday for its vision. “There are lots of moving parts,” said Lilly, citing numerous organizations and initiatives working on education in Tennessee. “So having a plan with long-range goals really ensures that the different pieces are working in concert.”

The plan would redirect the work of high school guidance counselors so they spend less time on paperwork and more time helping students find their best postsecondary fit. McQueen said her conversations with guidance counselors across the state pointed to concerns about excessive paperwork.

“Where you’re going to have the most impact is with students talking about their future And when you’re behind a mountain of paperwork, that’s going to be difficult to do,” she said.

McQueen said the state will work with districts to ensure that the ratio of counselors to students is adequate.

You can read the plan in its entirety here:

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.