County school officials discuss No Child Left Behind law

By Julie Fann
star staff
jfann@starhq.com
Carter County School System officials say the No Child Left Behind legislation is helping the system in spite of bureaucratic glitches and increased paperwork. In a recent interview, Superintendent Dallas Williams; Director of Federal Programs, Shirley Ellis, and Carter County School Board member, Chuck Madgett, discussed changes implemented since the new law took effect.
During the past academic year, the system designed a "consolidated plan", as mandated by NCLB, according to Ellis. The state, in conjunction with NCLB, asked that school boards form a committee comprised of a wide variety of individuals to ensure that school policy is more comprehensive. Carter County's committee consisted of Church Madgett as the liaison between the school board and the committee; Danny McClain, principal of Hampton High School; Hampton High School student Lindsey Harsh; two parents, as well as academic and vocational teachers. Kenny Lou Heaton, from Cloudland High School, served as secretary for the committee.
The system also formed a steering committee that held three planning sessions during the 2003-2004 academic year. One meeting was held in Morristown at Walter's State Community College, and two others were held at the Meadowview Center in Kingsport.
These committees developed a new mission statement as well as a new set of beliefs for the Carter County School System. Previously, the system's mission statement was "to challenge the mind and touch the heart". That mission statement has now become the system's motto.
The new mission statement for Carter County Schools is, according to Ellis: "To meet the academic, cultural, social, and individual needs of all students in order to prepare them to make a meaningful contribution to an ever-changing world. We believe it is our responsibility to prepare all students to meet the challenges of life's responsibilities. We welcome the privilege and challenge of joining parents in guiding each student's education".
The school system also added nine new "beliefs" to the previous seven. The new set of beliefs for the school system are:
* Equal educational opportunity is the right of all children without regard to race, creed, color, sex, or national origin.
* Education should develop the mental, physical, social, and moral capacities of each child.
* Preparation for citizenship in our Democracy and pride in our American heritage are vital ends of education.
* Education must be relevant to reality, especially the reality of constant change in an unstable world.
* Effective education involves mastery of certain basic tools of learning, such as reading, writing, speaking, and mathematical skills.
* The educational process should instill in students a deep sense of personal worth and genuine respect for others.
* Education is one of the brightest avenues of hope available to mankind in order to achieve a world of universal brotherhood and lasting peace.
* Parents are a vital component to student learning.
* Effective curriculum and state assessment alignment will result in an increase of adequate yearly progress.
* Advanced, intermediate, and remedial courses should be offered to meet the needs of all students, therefore ensuring that no child is left behind.
* Strong, knowledgeable teachers are effective instruments to education.
* High morale must exist among students and teachers in order for students to be successful.
* Small class size promotes a more direct approach to teaching and learning.
* Access to technology is a valuable asset to student learning.
* A well-nourished child is more prepared to meet daily academic challenges.
* Students, teachers, administrators, and parents, working together as a team, should approach the educational process with an open mind when faced with adversity and change.
School officials also looked closely at the curriculum in terms of assessment, organization, and planning and performed a large data analysis that covered the past three years. Aside from test scores, they also considered non-academic data such as parental income, ethnicity, and other factors.
"We looked at action plans for each school and what areas they were targeting, and we came up with three that were common throughout our system. Those three goals pertained to K-8 mathematics, ninth grade algebra one, and overall attendance," Ellis said. "We identified areas of concern and listed action steps or strategies for improvement. At the end of the 2004-2005 academic year, we will go back and look at scores and see if we have accomplished our goals."
All school systems were required to post their new mission statements, goals and beliefs on their Web site by June 1.
Madgett said that, in spite of increased testing and requirements, NCLB forces school systems to develop long-term plans and continually evaluate their effectiveness.
"What we've done this year will just go right on and become part of the process to keep this plan current ... that's the great thing about this legislation," he said.
"One of the good, positive things that's going to come out of No Child Left Behind is that it will change the way we look at some of these subgroups forever. We will always now look at the children with disabilities a little bit differently than we looked at them in the past, and we will probably pay attention to standards a lot more than we ever have before. So those are good things even though these tests create a lot of apprehension out there on the part of teachers, students, principals, supervisors, superintendents and board members, we're all aware of the accountability that goes along with this," Superintendent Dallas Williams said.
Williams, Madgett and Ellis said that the state's current Education Department director has a child who had to struggle to learn how to sip through a straw due to a severe handicap. As a result, the current director has an increased willingness to evaluate the legislation in terms of what is required for special education students and students with physical disabilities and to adapt guidelines that accommodate struggling students more.
In addition to TCAP testing for grades K-8, high school students must take Gateway exams in English two, Algebra one, and Biology, as well as end-of-course exams. According to the original legislation, students who did not pass all Gateway exams would not receive a high school diploma. However, state and federal officials are making adjustments to those requirements.
"The state Board of Education is meeting to look at alternative ways of offsetting this. They'll have a matrix, I think, and things set up so that if students meet these requirements they can still graduate, because I'm sure they were going to face litigation if a child went through 12 or 13 years of school and did not graduate based on one test," Williams said.
The state also implemented two new pilot tests in U.S. History and physical science during 2003-2004, but more evaluation of those tests will be needed before they will be added to the list of Gateway exams high school students are required to pass.
"I feel that those tests (Gateways) are only one test. Our teachers in the classrooms, they give formative assessments, and summative assessments and pre-tests and end-of-chapter tests. They're constantly testing students and assessing them other than just this end-of-the-year test, and we should look at it as that; that it's only one set of data to look at," Ellis said.
One problem that does exist with NCLB, Williams said, is that, in spite of adjustments made, the expectations all students must meet are almost unachievable because the same standards still basically exist for all students - a child with a very low IQ must meet the same standard as the gifted child.
Another NCLB requirement the school system must meet is that all teachers be "highly qualified". Originally, there was talk that some teachers would be forced to quit because they weren't adequately prepared in their subject. Eventually, the state determined that they would assist those teachers who are lacking by asking them to attend workshops and by implementing a matrix system so that the number of hours a teacher has taught contributes to their qualifications.
"I've been working with the teachers and they've been bringing me documentation to show me that they're highly qualified. The state says that at the K-6 level teachers can show that they're highly qualified by doing a professional matrix; a broad field matrix, so we can count hours or points that they have attended workshops; hours on their transcripts on a broad field of reading, math, social studies, science, and they get so many points for years of teaching at that level," Ellis said.
At the seventh and eighth grade level, teachers must be subject-specific, which caused some alarm among school officials in the beginning.
"But then the state said, 'There are several ways that they can prove they're highly qualified.' - if they have an active major, a course equivalent, which is up to 24 hours of that subject at the college level, or those teachers may also use a matrix; it's not a broad field matrix, but they can also count their teaching experience, professional development and course work toward that subject area," Ellis said.
Currently, 98 percent of teachers in the Carter County School System are highly qualified, Ellis said, and those that aren't have until the end of 2005-2006 to prove that they are. "Whether by taking a Praxis exam (subject knowledge exam) or additional classes. And at this point in time we're not apprehensive at all in the fact that we're going to be able to meet that," Ellis said.
At the high school level, teachers must have an academic major in their subject area, at least 24 hours of classes at the college level, or a course-specific matrix which accounts for time taught.
"If you've got a guy who has been teaching science for 25 years, and students who have gone through his class have grades that show that they know their subject, someone in the state with some common sense has come in and said, 'He wouldn't have been teaching science that long if he wasn't qualified to teach it'," Madgett said.
NCLB also requires that paraprofessionals, or teacher's aides, be highly qualified. As a result, the school system purchased a computer program from the Educational Testing Service, called the Para-Pro test, which tutors instructional aides. "They do the tutoring sections first online, and then they enter in and take the test. It costs $40 for each test, and we've paid for that through Title II monies," Ellis said.
In the end, NCLB will improve standards in school systems across the country, Carter County School System officials said. However, they said the well-being of students should take priority over all else.
"One thing I'd like to point out is that this is not a ball game. We don't have winners and losers. All of our children are winners, and we need to make sure that message gets out there. In a ballgame, you pick and choose who's on the team, and we have to educate them all," Williams said.