Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits

Penny Schwinn visited Tennessee classrooms on her first day on the job Monday and pledged to make school visits a habit throughout her tenure as the state’s education commissioner.

After touring Delk-Henson Intermediate School in rural Marshall County, she watched first-graders play word games in the Franklin classroom of Tennessee Teacher of the Year Melissa Miller. Then she hit the road for Harris-Hillman, a Nashville school for students with disabilities. All are in Middle Tennessee.

“It’s about listening and learning,” Schwinn said, promising to use what she learns to ensure that “every single child in the state of Tennessee has access to an exceptional education and an incredibly strong teacher in front of them.”

“Every child deserves that,” she added.

Chosen by Gov. Bill Lee amid calls for a homegrown leader by teacher and superintendent groups, the former Texas academics chief knows that she needs to build trust with Tennessee educators, especially having started her career with Teacher For America, one of the nation’s largest alternative teacher training programs.

Schwinn has a packed agenda this week, including more school visits and meetings with the state superintendents organization, Tennessee lawmakers, and colleagues at the state education department. She says she mostly just wants to introduce herself as a student-driven leader.

“I’m about kids,” she said. “It is kids first, and that is all the time, every time. So we’ll be talking about students and student achievement. We will be talking about holding the line on the things that have pushed Tennessee to where we are today, which is rigorous standards, assessment accountability, and supports for our educators.”

On Tuesday, Schwinn is scheduled to visit schools in Oak Ridge and Anderson County in East Tennessee, and she’ll return to Middle Tennessee on Wednesday to tour a high school in Clarksville. She’ll also visit a Nashville public charter school operated by the LEAD network under the state’s Achievement School District.

She said a trip is being planned to Memphis, home of the state’s largest school district and the hub of school improvement work being done through both Shelby County Schools and the state-run district.

“All of them are unique,” she said of Tennessee’s 147 districts. “What I heard today in the rural community is very different than what I heard in the Teacher of the Year’s classroom.”

Schwinn spoke with reporters in the library at Harris-Hillman, which serves 130 students ages 3 to 22 with disabilities. Her tour included a sensory room, where she watched Kathy Moret, a 34-year educator, work with an 8-year old girl with cerebral palsy.

Kathy Moret is a special education teacher at Nashville’s Harris-Hillman School.

Moret appreciated Schwinn’s attention because students with exceptional needs often feel invisible in public education.

“It’s great when people realize that we are an important part of the educational ladder,” Moret said afterward. “I’ve never worked with a child who could not learn. They are able to learn some way; they just learn in a different fashion.”

Tennessee’s two previous education commissioners, Candice McQueen and Kevin Huffman, routinely visited schools across the state. During her four years as commissioner, McQueen made it to all 95 counties, beginning with her high school alma mater in Clarksville and ending with Hawkins County in rural East Tennessee.

Schwinn said she likes that model.

“That’s what education is — the people business — so I’m going to spend time talking about people,” she said.