Nolan and Thrasher Elementary schools are among the 2017 Tennessee Reward Schools recently named by the state Department of Education. Reward Schools represent the top 5 percent of schools for performance and the top 5 percent for progress in the state. Some schools — Thrasher included — are in the top 5 percent for both performance and progress.
Despite those successes, Thrasher Principal Jeff Paulson said the school still has a good portion of students who aren't "on track," the designation just below the top designation of "mastery," according to the state's accountability standards. Paulson said teachers at the school know those students by name, and the school has a large portion of students who are on track that teachers hope to bring up to mastery status, as well.
To achieve those goals, Paulson said he plans to focus on good, basic instruction with the help of involved parents and dedicated teachers. For example, he said the school's STEM teacher doesn't just teach kids about science, but instead allows them to be scientists or engineers. He described the way she questions students as similar to a coaching model, in which she tries to get the kids to do more of the talking.
"When students are engaged, they're working at 100 percent," Paulson said. "Teachers are not dictating every minute, but creating a learning experience."
With technology, Thrasher students are encouraged to create content rather than consuming it, he said. For example, fifth-graders recently produced a living history museum, using technology to video themselves as they practiced their roles and then using the recordings to improve their performance.
"Technology is not just a tool for learning, but a tool for creating," said Paulson.
He also credits the school's success with the amount of time the faculty spends in professional development, and the support they get from the Public Education Foundation as well as the county Department of Education in the form of literacy and math coaches.
"We receive responsive support in all areas," he said of Hamilton County Schools, adding that the maintenance department typically responds within an hour.
Nolan received the Reward School designation for performance, which the school has done previously, said Principal Shane Harwood, though it has not received the designation since at least 2012, the first year for which designees are listed on the Tennessee Department of Education website.
He credits the hard work of the school's teachers and students, as well as the parental support the school receives, for students' success.
"We keep what's best for our students in the forefront of our minds, and we're excited to be recognized for doing that," said Harwood, who also echoed Paulson's comments about support received from the school district and from PEF.
While this is Nolan's first year with a STEM lab, Harwood said teachers are already seeing results similar to Thrasher — that when technology is used purposefully for teaching and learning, whether that be through individual devices, Promethean boards, document cameras or 3-D printing, it leads to more student engagement.
Teachers at Nolan are continuously finding new ways to integrate it into the school's curriculum and standards, he said.
Achievement gaps between designated subgroups — black/Hispanic/Native American, economically disadvantaged, English learners, students with disabilities, non-economically disadvantaged, non-English learners and non-students with disabilities — is one area the school needs to improve in to be recognized for progress as well, he said.
The school is anxious to get detailed data back from the state, he said, so teachers can dial down to what specific students need and follow best practices to increase those students' achievement.
Signal Mountain Middle/High School, which was not recognized as a Reward School, is working on closing gaps between subgroups as well, said Principal Todd Stinson.
"We're working to improve in all areas so we might achieve Reward status, and we're working to improve the level of achievement in all subgroups," he said. "We have exceptional teachers and exceptional students, and we're making sure every student gets a quality education every day."