Engaging students: District leaders provide vision for schools

Hamilton County Department of Education Interim Superintendent, Kirk Kelly (right), makes a point while Chief Academic Officer, Jill Levine, looks on. Members of the Hamilton County Department of Education visited the Chattanooga Times Free Press to discuss goals for the 2016 school year.

As the new school year is underway, the new leaders at the helm of Hamilton County Schools say the central office has a renewed focus on supporting schools and providing them with increased autonomy.

"We are here to support more than we're here to mandate," said Chief Academic Officer Jill Levine.

Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly appointed Levine to her role and the two have developed a team at the central office under the motto, "Engage every student. Every day."

The central office team shared its new strategic focus, which targets five areas, in a meeting with Times Free Press reporters and editors.

That starts with engaging students, Levine said.

"We are bringing back the joy of learning and teaching in ways that make students want to learn more," she said.

Keri Randolph, director of innovations, said a way of engaging students is ensuring they have the best teachers, the most important in-school factor for children to succeed and achieve.

Nearly 30 percent of teachers in Hamilton County are considered least effective by state measures, and many are in the district's predominantly poor and minority schools.

Teachers want to be given professional discretion and support to do what is best for their students in the classroom, Randolph said, and she is working to elevate teachers' voices and increase leadership opportunities for them within the district.

Communication, climate and culture also are part of the new strategic focus. Justin Robertson, newly appointed assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said it's hard to improve skills such as literacy if the school's climate, and a child's social and emotional health, aren't also addressed.

"It's important that we emphasize [students'] self-worth and help build up their character, and not only prepare them to go outside of high school for college or career, but also for life," Robertson said.

Literacy is the district's third focus.

"It's no secret we have some kids that are not on grade level," Robertson said.

Improving literacy rates is crucial if students are to succeed in math and on the ACT, he said.

The central office is requiring each elementary and middle school implement guided reading, which many elementary schools have been doing for years.

Guided reading is designed for small groups of students who read on the same level, and the program is proven to accelerate a student's progress, Levine said.

While a teacher works with the reading group, the rest of the class is given assignments that can range from individual reading to art.

Students from kindergarten to third grade, and those in grades four through eight who aren't reading on grade level, will have guided reading instruction every day.

Another focus is preparing students for college or careers in jobs existing in the region.

Randolph said the district hopes to increase the average ACT score to 21 over the next three years. The average score for students graduating in 2016 was 19.1, the highest average ACT score the district has earned in five years, up from 18.9 the year before.

The system is emphasizing ensuring students go for post-secondary credentials, equipping them to leave high school and find good-paying jobs, if they don't plan to attend college.

Now just one in 30 graduating seniors has a post-secondary credential. Randolph said the goal is to have one in seven students leave high school with a credential aligned with the demands of the local workforce.

The final focus is on improving the district's 16 lowest-performing schools.

Twenty percent of Hamilton County's schools are ranked in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide, according to standardized testing. Five local schools are in the bottom 5 percent of the state's schools, known as priority or iZone schools.

"These schools need some extra help," Kelly said.

He noted additional literacy instructors have been added to these schools, and said the district is looking at ways to recruit and retain top-performing teachers in these classrooms.

Kelly said it's a "challenging time and challenging circumstances, so leadership really matters" in the district.

He said his team is working with the school board, the community and Chattanooga 2.0 to improve the school system moving forward.

The school board is expected to interview superintendent search firms Sept. 13, and make a decision about which group will help them find the district's next leader.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or krainwater @timesfreepress.com. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.