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Staff file photo by Troy Stolt / Interim Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Nakia Towns speaks in mid-August at Woodmore Elementary School about the district's TN Ready testing results for the 2020-2021 school year.

Finally, things are looking up in our Hamilton County public schools — even over a long year of pandemic distractions.

In 85% of Hamilton County schools — 67 of 79 schools — a majority of students met or exceeded the state's growth standards across four subject areas for the 2020-21 school year, according to new Tennessee Value Added Assessment System data released this week.

There's more: 34 schools, across all school board districts and learning communities, received designations of distinction — what the state calls "reward school status" as high performers — or a highest level year-over-year learning growth score of 5, or both. And 27 schools increased achievement over their scores from 2019.

And there's still more good news: Almost all of the county's nine "priority schools," so designated because they are in the lowest-performing 5% of all schools in Tennessee, saw significant improvements with eight increasing their percentile ranking. Two schools, Clifton Hills and Woodmore elementaries, exited from priority school designation.

Best of all, 82% of teachers met or exceeded growth standards for their students — a measure of teacher effectiveness. That's up from 2016 when only 63% met or exceeded the standard and nearly a third of the county's teachers ranked among the state's "least effective." This past year, only 8% were among the state's least effective.

Interim superintendent Nakia Towns praised the community and parents who worked with the schools and "allowed us to be resilient."

"COVID-19 and the pandemic was a tremendous headwind for all of us. We were all having to try to tread uphill to protect those student learning gains, Towns told the Times Free Press Wednesday. "I think it [the new scores and improvement] just bodes well. When that headwind has gone one of these good old days post-COVID, we'll be able to pick up and run even faster."

Perhaps she was being too modest. Towns and former Superintendent Bryan Johnson came to the Hamilton County system about four years ago when our schools were seemingly at rock bottom. Student scores were at the lowest point in decades, the district had gone more than 15 months without a permanent superintendent, and every superintendent before Johnson since 1997 was either fired or left the job under pressure. The system was under threat to have several schools taken over by the state, and the community was still reeling from the horrific rape of an Ooltewah basketball player, assaulted with a pool cue during a tournament outing in 2015.

Johnson and Towns forged new community bonds and guided the schools to become the fastest improving district in the state.

This week, Towns seemed particularly pleased — and she should be — with the county's improved teacher effectiveness figures, noting that it was a key area for improvement when she and Johnson joined this team, despite initial controversy when the new leaders proposed a plan for early teacher retirement incentives in 2018.

"Across the board, our [learning] growth rates in Hamilton County schools look significantly different, and I think it's important to note that this isn't because we ran off all our teachers. We've increased our retention rate," Towns said.

"These are many of the same educators who were here in 2016 that we've been able to support with the right resources and give the right tools and the right types of professional development and align with our benchmark data so that teachers are able to support children to high levels of outcome and growth."

Hamilton County schools use several teacher recruitment programs in partnership with community organizations to bring more teachers to the district. At the statewide level, the Tennessee Department of Education awarded a $100,000 grant to Lipscomb University for the Grow Your Own program, one of Hamilton County Schools's partners in the program, to further train and certify teachers.

Also, the Project Inspire program, backed by the Public Education Foundation, partners teaching residents with current Hamilton County teachers in a 14-month residency. Residents earn masters degrees and teacher licenses before committing to teach in a high-need Hamilton County school for four years.

A silver lining of the pandemic has been that teachers are now able to take extra training online, and more are taking advantage of it, said Neelie Parker, Chief Schools Officer.

In mid-August, Towns and other school officials reviewed a different set of data, the statewide Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program scores, known as TCAPs. That take-away, too, showed improvement, and indicated that students here did something most students across Tennessee couldn't do during the pandemic year of off-and-on remote schooling: They kept learning.

In the TCAPs, Hamilton County Schools outperformed the state in 24 out of 28 tested grade and subject areas. And in five of those areas, our students bested the state by five percentage points or more.

For years, we've longed to write happy editorials about the quality of Hamilton County public schools, but we couldn't. Our schools simply were not quality schools, with the majority of Hamilton County youngsters scoring behind in almost every subject.

We still have plenty of improvements to make. Plenty. But, as we said, things are looking up.

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