By Keeli Parkey

Director of Schools John English says the Unicoi County School System has a reason to celebrate and the community it serves has a reason to be proud.

The Tennessee Department of Education recently announced that the district was named among some of the best in the state – having achieved the level of Exemplary School District based on accountability determinations.

“There has been a lot of support and hard work go into this,” English told The Erwin Record. “I am appreciative and thankful for the effort that everyone has put in to make it happen.

“We are very proud of our staff – our teachers, instructional assistants, principals and supervisors,” he continued. “They have really dug in and worked hard and worked through a lot of challenges. To fight through all of that and to come out with an exemplary status speaks to the (Unicoi County Board of Education) and their commitment to provide education, the teachers in carrying it out and our students working hard.”

The local school district was one of five to achieve exemplary status in the region; Washington County, Johnson City, Elizabethton and Greeneville were the other four.

According to the Tennessee Department of Education website: “Under Tennessee’s accountability system, districts must increase achievement levels for all students and show faster growth in achievement for the students who are furthest behind in order to reduce achievement gaps.”

The website also states that: “Districts designated as exemplary are exceeding the growth expectation on average for both all students and each historically underserved student group.”

English said the system’s exemplary status was the result of student performance on assessments taken for the 2016-17 school year. This included end-of-course exams and ACT scores at the high school level, and TNReady assessments in grades 3-8.

“What made this so rewarding to get this was it was a completely new year of testing,” English said. “Instead of taking the old TCAP tests, students took the new TNReady Assessment, which is more rigorous. That was a big challenge for our teachers to take a new test and have their students perform well on it.”

English said the accountability determination emphasizes the gains each student makes during a school year.

“Not all kids are at a mastery or advanced level,” he explained. “Our kids are coming in at the start of the school year and leaving with tremendous growth. That’s what it’s all about. The exemplary status is just proof that every day our teachers are taking students where they are and they are helping them grow and make gains.

“Every day we are meeting students where they are,” English continued. “This is the tough part for teachers. You can’t go into a classroom of 28 kids and put a bar up there and say that everybody has to get there. What I think our teachers are doing a great job of is drilling down to each kid and seeing where their bar is and each day raising that bar for each kid. Overall, you are seeing growth from that.”

These efforts are paying off, according to English.

“If you’re really identifying where students are struggling and you’re really focusing your resources and efforts in those areas, the idea is you will see them grow and improve,” he said. “I think that’s what we’ve seen these last couple of years.”

The local district performed well in what the state classifies as student subgroups, which includes economically disadvantaged, English language learners or special education students, English said.

“That means our teachers and our leadership are doing a really good job of meeting the needs of those students, meeting them where they are and growing them,” he added.

Another important area where the district performed well was in the ACT scores of Unicoi County High School students.

“Our growth in ACT scores in recent years have been amazing,” English said. “Last year, the state as a whole improved two-tenths of a point on the ACT, which is great. In two years, our average composite ACT score has improved by 1.6 points – we’ve gone from 18.1 two years ago to 19.7. That is a tremendous jump in ACT scores. What that means for our students is huge, because in a lot of cases, the dollars they receive for their post-secondary education are tied to their ACT score. To have that kind of jump on ACT scores means students are getting more financial assistance than they were before.”

English said the state has set a goal of a 21 average composite score on the ACT for all districts by 2020.

“Our goal is get to 21,” he added. “My first year as director we purchased an ACT prep software called Edgenuity. We have students who are now taking ACT prep classes who weren’t before. I would like to thank the Board of Education for their support with that. We also have that available to them in the computer lab where they can take practice tests. There is a lot more focus on ACT prep than there was before. All the teachers are taking ownership in that, really focusing on ACT standards and making sure students are ready for the test.”

English said the district hopes to keep continuing to provide the best education possible for Unicoi County’s students.

“We have a lot of folks working really hard to make all this happen,” he said. “We are happy with our growth, but we are certainly not satisfied.”

Having one year of the TNReady assessment in the books, English also said he hopes to see even better results next year.

“In the 2016-17 school year we were preparing for a test we had never had,” he added. “So, now that we have this data, we know what to expect for the next assessment. We can look at where we need to grow and really be ready for the testing in the spring.”