Eighth-graders from East Ridge Middle join Principal Angela Cass and Assistant Principals Jon Young and Christy Drake to receive their banner from District 8 school board member David Testerman and schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson. (Contributed photo)

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With this year's TNReady and TVAAS scores showing Hamilton County Schools' academic growth on the rise, the district is honoring top achievers with celebratory "championship" banners to commemorate their continued improvement.

Since late last month, school board members and administrators have been working to present the banners to all 25 schools that earned a composite score of 5 out of 5 — the highest possible — through the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, which measures student growth by evaluating each child's performance in literacy, numeracy, science and social studies year over year.

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Apison Elementary receives its Level 5 banner. From left are Superintendent Bryan Johnson, Zeke Johns, District 7 school board member Joe Wingate, Jaxson Cavitt, Principal Ron Hughes, Marley Braden, school board Chairman Steve Highlander, Alexis Price and Cayde Hand. (Contributed photo)

"We see schools hang banners for athletic accomplishments and that is good, but it is time for our schools to take equal pleasure in academic accomplishments," Bryan Johnson, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, said in a news release. "Schools can hang these banners with pride as a result of their academic accomplishment and share the joy of the success of the students and staff with parents and the community."

Among the 25 schools are Apison Elementary, East Ridge Middle, Harrison Elementary, Ooltewah Middle, Tyner Academy, Tyner Middle Academy, Westview Elementary and Wolftever Creek Elementary.

For these schools and the others that achieved Level 5 status this year, two consistent themes for student improvement seem to be professional development for teachers and a focused approach to instruction.

At Apison Elementary, for instance, Principal Ron Hughes has organized several professional development opportunities beyond those provided by the school district. Over the years, he's written grants to bring in consultants who help the teachers develop their craft in small groups; provided teachers with summer reading materials such as "Thinking Through Quality Questioning: Deepening Student Engagement" to help them train students to debate issues and question lesson topics; and set up in-house, peer-on-peer "Teacher Learning Times" twice a month to allow more experienced teachers to share their expertise with younger teachers, many of whom have children of their own and can't make it to the training sessions offered by the district in the afternoons.

"In order for our students to grow, our teachers have to grow," said Hughes. "I learned early on in my career as a school administrator, if I was going to bring about school reform, I've got to provide quality, ongoing, professional learning for my teachers, and it has served me well through the years."

While making sure those opportunities exist, Hughes said it's also important to have specific areas of focus to avoid overwhelming teachers. At Apison Elementary, those chosen areas have been reading and writing instruction.

"For an elementary school, reading is fundamental and foundational," Hughes explained. "Teachers have to be able to analyze their students' reading behaviors and have a toolkit of strategies to address the needs of their students."

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Steve Highlander, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Education, presents a banner to Principal Gail Huffstutler and students at Wolftever Creek Elementary. (Contributed photo)

Angela Cass, principal at East Ridge Middle, also cautioned against overwhelming teachers. "Intentionality" is the school's code word for the year, she said.

"I think a lot of times schools can lose their focus if they're not careful because there's so many cool things out there that you can do," said Cass. "If you don't keep it to a minimum, then you're going really wide and not very deep."

In addition to keeping the focus limited to certain aspects of professional development each year, the school started professional learning communities last year, where teachers regularly meet in small groups to bounce ideas off one another and develop teaching methods they hope will improve student performance.

Cass said celebrating the students' successes has also been a key factor in maintaining their momentum and motivating them to work harder, making small gestures like championship banners all the more impactful. ERMS already has an academic block party planned for Oct. 5 to reward students for achieving Level 5 status, and Cass said school administrators have already implemented incentives for achievements in attendance and behavior that give them something to celebrate with the children on a monthly basis.

"We're just letting them know that they can do it," she said. "We want them to know that they don't have to be perfect or feel pressured to achieve at this enormously high level as long as they're just striving every single day to be better."

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