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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Kelsey Cooley teaches her Algebra 1 class at Sale Creek Middle/High School on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021, in Sale Creek, Tenn. Sale Creek saw the largest increase in TCAP proficiency for math in the region over the past year.

At Sale Creek Middle/High School, Principal LeAnn Welch said "grit" is the theme of this school year.

Sale Creek's high school math students saw some of the most impressive proficiency gains in the state on Tennessee's standardized testing last year — a year in which most schools experienced significant decreases in student performance that officials have attributed to learning interferences caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

But at Sale Creek, math students' performance on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program testing saw performance grow from 21.9% proficient in 2019 to 31% in 2021.

Welch told the Times Free Press on Friday that Sale Creek began focusing on improving math proficiency prior to the pandemic using instructional supports and tools like a curriculum guide from the district, along with communication between teachers and instruction coach Erica Schmidt, also a math teacher.

The theme of grit extends beyond just academic progress.

Todd Wood, an algebra II/precalculus teacher at the school, died of COVID-19 in September after a monthlong battle in the hospital.

"Even though he was quarantined, he would still teach, and him teaching while quarantined and even when he was getting sick on screen, him still showing up every day to teach personified grit, and I'm grateful to him for that," Welch said.

Schmidt said building relationships with students has been a focus for the school prior to the pandemic. The school has a goal of holding conferences with students quarterly.

"We do our best to know what's going on with each student personally and academically, and so these conferences played a role in that, so that [the students] set personal goals ... for themselves based on previous habits or previous assessment and then what they felt they were capable of doing realistically," Schmidt said.

"The teachers really did a good job of conveying, like, 'We are in the middle of something that's hard, but we're still going to press forward. We can still work to have growth and do our best.'"

Making progress

Schools with the highest growth in proficiency in Southeast Tennessee, by subject, comparing 2019 to 2021:

— English language arts (grades 3-5): Palmer Elementary School, Grundy County — 10% in 2019, 27.5% in 2021.

— High school English (grades 9-12): Polk County High School, Polk County — 22.4% in 2019, 31.6% in 2021.

— High school math (grades 9-12): Sale Creek Middle/High School, Hamilton County — 21.9% in 2019, 31% in 2021.

— Math (grades 3-5): Palmer Elementary School, Grundy County — 7.5% in 2019, 32.5% in 2021.

— Social studies (grades 6-8): Etowah Elementary, Etowah — 19.8% in 2019, 49.2% in 2021.

— U.S. history (grades 9-12): Central High School, Hamilton County — 24.8% in 2019, 50% in 2021.

Source: Tennessee Department of Education

Regional gains

State and district averages on statewide tests largely showed decreases in proficiency due to pandemic disruptions. Even so, a few schools across Tennessee Valley school districts, like Sale Creek, bucked the trend.

Etowah Elementary in McMinn County saw growth in the social studies test for grades 6-8 by 29.4 percentage points, from 19.8% proficiency in 2019 to 49.2% proficiency this year.

Sarah Carroll, social studies teacher from sixth, seventh and eighth grade at Etowah Elementary, told the Times Free Press in a Wednesday email that the gains were a pleasant surprise.

"To see that growth made me feel like all of the hard work that went into the school year was worth it!" Carroll said. "If you ask any teacher across the state, they will probably tell you that this previous year was the most challenging one of their career."

She attributes the growth to the school implementing "live" classes during the pandemic in which students in quarantine or learning from home could tune into class and participate rather than only posting assignments online.

Photo Gallery

Sale Creek Middle/High School TCAP growth

"I believe we all just went in with the mindset of trying to help these kids have as normal of a year as possible. I tried to do as many hands-on activities as I could ... Even though we were not able to participate in group projects while social distancing, having hands-on activities held their interest," Carroll said.

High school English at Polk County High School showed growth in proficiency by 9.5 percentage points. Palmer Elementary in Grundy County — which consolidated with Swiss Memorial Elementary this year — saw the highest growth in the region in the English and math tests for grades 3-5.

Hamilton County Schools also saw a large boost in U.S. history test proficiency at Central High School, by 25 percentage points. District spokesperson Cody Patterson told the Times Free Press on Thursday the increase was partially due to reduced participation in this year's test, with more students taking dual enrollment classes or seeking industry certifications compared to 2019.

Pushing forward

This year, Welch said, Sale Creek is building on its success.

"When you can prove that that plan works, and the students have already bought into it and the teachers have seen the success of it, it kind of builds itself," Welch said.

The school has also adjusted the way it views the benchmark tests.

"We've had to frame up our message on how we use the benchmark data and even the [Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program]. It's not a punishment, it's really a time for them to show off what they know and give us the opportunity to fill the gaps," Welch said.

"I think having the parental support and reframing how we view the benchmark, I think that's a huge step. Like [Schmidt] said, it's not a 'Gotcha,' this is an 'OK, let's roll up our sleeves to figure out what we need to do to finally close those gaps.'"

Schmidt said teachers talked with students about the theme of "grit" when they began the academic year not knowing what to expect.

"We've talked about how we're not going to ignore the storm, and we've had a lot of struggles this quarter. We're still going to dive into our work and try to focus on that to help us distract a little, and we're not going to ignore what we're going through, but we're still going to push forward."

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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