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Nakia Edwards, chief of staff at the Hamilton County Board of Education, introduces Tennessee Commissioner of Education Dr. Penny Schwinn during the 38th Annual Superintendent’s Honors Banquet at the Chattanooga Convention Center Monday, April 29, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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Penny Schwinn

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said she was settling into her role and thinking strategically about the role of the Department of Education across the state Monday.

Schwinn was in Chattanooga to deliver the keynote address at Hamilton County Schools' 38th annual Superintendent's Honors Banquet, which recognizes the top 10% of graduating seniors across the district.

The commissioner, who was appointed by Gov. Bill Lee in January, also attended a meeting of the Partnership Network's Advisory Board after what she called a "reset" earlier this year.

The Partnership Network is the collaborative effort between the state and Hamilton County Schools to support the district's worst-performing schools.

Schwinn said she was pleased with the work the network has been doing to set quantifiable benchmarks for improvement for those schools, which include Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary.

Those benchmarks will eventually solidified by Schwinn and Superintendent Bryan Johnson later this fall. Schwinn said she is also working on a three-year strategic plan for the department.

"You'll see a strategic plan that has to serve all kids across the state," she said. "We've had over 170 classroom visits and being in the classroom, talking to children, it doesn't look the same in every community."

When asked if she was hearing concerns from local educators about the impact Gov. Bill Lee's controversial school voucher bills could have on local funding, Schwinn said she wasn't.

"What I'm hearing when I'm talking to educators and visiting schools and classrooms is that we want more funding for literacy programs, and we want to make sure we are creating atmospheres that are safe and supportive for students," she said.

Versions of legislation establishing education savings accounts, or vouchers, have passed both the Tennessee House and Senate this spring, but the two must still come to a compromise on the final outcome of the bill.

Schwinn said the state's education department would support districts across the state to meet their goals and needs with the resources they have and with what the state can help provide.

The commissioner's visit to Chattanooga was announced by the district last week, but her travel schedule was not readily available to media. She said she did not visit any schools Monday.

She thanked the educators who had shaped her own life and journey when addressing nearly 1,000 students, educators and parents at the Convention Center Monday night.

"I think about all the people who helped me, this podium doesn't necessarily belong to me and this moment in time, it belongs to all the people who supported me along the way," Schwinn said. "All of us are where we are because we had someone, some mentor invest in us."

The annual honors banquet recognized more than 265 seniors from the district's 18 high schools for their outstanding accomplishments during high school.

"This is one of my favorite nights of the year," said Justin Robertson, chief schools officer for the district. "It's an opportunity not only to celebrate what's going right in Hamilton County Schools, but to show the best of the best."

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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