published Monday, August 22nd, 2011

Bradley County & Cleveland, Tenn., schools racing to the top

By Paul Leach, Correspondent

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CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Thanks to federal Race to the Top funds in Tennessee, a local school official says a "sea change" is in progress regarding how teachers are re-creating the classroom environment.

"We have to keep student achievement in the forefront," said Martin Ringstaff, the new director of Cleveland City Schools.

Race to the Top is a four-year program to enable school districts to better measure and improve teacher performance and prepare students for success in college and the workplace.

The funding -- amounting to nearly $1.4 million for Cleveland City Schools and $1.46 million for Bradley County Schools -- allows the systems to jump-start educational standards through data-driven reporting.

The student-, class- and school-level reporting helps teachers better evaluate individual student knowledge and needs, according to Sharon Harper, director of assessment, research, and evaluation for Bradley County Schools.

Bradley County uses a technology coach to help teachers learn the new way of doing things, said Harper.

She and Martin explained that a core focus of their programs revolves around tailoring teaching methods to meet how individual students learn, referred to as "differentiated instruction."

The school administrators said the concept traditionally has been applied to the elementary classrooms where students may be grouped according to the different ways they learn, whether visually, audibly or other ways.

The new idea, they said, is to apply it more to middle school and high school classrooms.

"All kids can learn," said Harper, who acknowledged that differentiated instruction can be a challenge to secondary school teachers used to only delivering 40-minute lectures and some class work.

Both Harper and Ringstaff said they expect the new teaching initiatives to pay off in higher student achievement in coming years.

A key benchmark of the ultimate success of students and their school districts is ACT college exam scores, the school officials said.

Harper said she had not reviewed ACT scores for Bradley and Walker Valley high schools.

Cleveland High School achieved an ACT composite score of 20.7 for English, math, reading, and science in 2011, according to Ringstaff. The state average composite score was 19.5; the national average was 21.1.

"I want Cleveland to do so well that we drive up the state average," he said.

Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at paul.leach.press@gmail.com.

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