PEF intensifies focus

PEF intensifies focus

August 12th, 2012 in Opinion Times

When organizations develop new strategic plans, they're often considered as shelf documents that won't much change the status quo. Not so with the Public Education Foundation.

The PEF, a smallish community-based nonprofit organization that for 25 years has partnered with public schools here to help improve student achievement, is plunging with renewed zeal into high-impact programs with potential at all levels in Hamilton County's public schools. Designed to complement recent national, state and local Race to the Top reforms, they comprise a thoughtful linkage of progressive aid to students in all grade levels and expert mentoring and leadership training for personnel, from classroom teachers to principals to administrators in the central office. They also recognize the unique economic development and job growth potential now gathering steam here.

These are not esoteric programs, nor are they unneeded. The school system's budget has been pared to the bone over the past decade. It can hardly afford adequate staff, classroom materials or new roofs when they're leaky and beyond repair, much less the level of professional training that is constantly required for new teachers and principals. PEF initiatives, prepared in collaboration with the school system's leadership, help fill these crucial gaps.

Support for teachers

Operating on the principle that excellent public schools demand excellent teachers and principals, the remodeled PEF initiatives go to the core. They focus on specific levels of professional support for teachers, especially in high-poverty schools, and schools where large numbers of students learn English as a second language. They are designed to help students and teachers excel under rigorous new state standards, which raised Tennessee's academic standards from among the lowest in the nation to some of the highest, and which now require annual evaluations of teachers and principals.

One PEF program, for example, helps support an intensive mentoring program for teachers in their crucial first year on the job, when they most need a support network for instructional skills and help in establishing effective classroom management. A TEACH/Here program, which provides a year-long in-classroom residency for new recruits to teaching in hard-to-fill math and science slots in grades 6-12, is to be replicated with math teachers in grades 4-8. The goal is to recruit and train and over 100 new highly skilled math and science teachers by 2016.

A middle school program provides intensive coaching in a widely acclaimed readers' and writers' workshop model that is proving successful in advancing students reading and writing skills. In an effort to reinforce graduation and a culture of going to college, PEF also has placed college counselors in every high school, with particular emphases on financing college, and a "Camp College" event for first-generation college-bound students.

These and prior efforts in the Benwood initiative in high poverty schools are already paying off: academic scores and value-added achievement levels are rising, and graduation levels are up. 71 percent of recent graduates are going to college, and alternatives for students not college-bound are being upgraded. Success of the new STEM school should add momentum to the ranks of college-bound students and improve work-force potential.

PEF's professional training efforts also provide a Principal Leadership Academy to nurture potential future principals. Another leadership initiative focuses on how to evaluate teachers; yet another trains leaders in school reform. All these will be reinforced.

'A moment in time'

The PEF's new strategic plan, says president Dan Challener, reflects, in part, the state's new academic and teacher evaluation standards. It also reflects the sensible view of PEF leaders and board members that Hamilton County, and its school district, have arrived at a particularly crucial "moment in time" -- a crossroads point in which this county's long-sought economic development now demands a deep commitment to generating highly educated students and a competitive, qualified work-force.

This moment of opportunity must be seized, or it will be lost. One need only look at the competitive landscape to see the national and global forces that are shaping our economic future and quality of life. The increasingly rapid shift to a globalized economy is brutally competitive, however. Riding it demands urgency in reinforcing achievement in our public schools, and preparedness for learning.

It's not enough to nurture the best or most prepared students; none can be left out if this community is to meet the selective standards of the best future employers, and attract them here. Challener rightly sees the need for more intentional efforts to help all students and teachers here succeed. The more partners that rally around this cause with PEF and the school system's central office, the more likely that goal will be achieved.