As part of a tour of schools in Northeast Tennessee, the state’s top education official visited Unicoi County Middle School on Friday, April 8.
Guided by school system officials, including Director of Schools John English, and students Bella Bogart and L.J. Phillips, Dr. Candice McQueen, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education, visited several classrooms, observed lessons and spoke with teachers and students about a variety of topics. McQueen observed a math class, a language arts class and a history class before visiting the Early Learning Center which is also located in the building.
While stopping in Tim Higgins’ eighth grade history class, McQueen asked the students about their teachers, testing, specifically the new TNReady assessment, and their ideas for improving education.
“Tell me how many of you took TNReady part one,” she asked. “What was your experience? Was it positive? Did you feel prepared for what the questions were?”
In response, one student said he felt the test did not allow him enough time to answer all the questions.
“I have heard that before,” McQueen responded.
Students also told McQueen they preferred taking the test using paper and pencils instead of taking it online.
The students also had the chance to brag on Higgins when McQueen asked the class to tell her what they like about him.
“I have only been in here a few minutes and can tell you have to love him,” she said.
“What’s not to love,” a student responded.
“We have got to tweet out that quote,” McQueen said with a laugh.
“I love how engaged he is,” another student said.
“That makes you interested in coming here,” McQueen said. “That’s great. … Maybe he can inspire some of you to become teachers one day. I would love for some of you to be teachers.”
McQueen then asked Higgins to describe the class.
“This is my third period class,” he said, “and we have really bonded this year. They tell me they look forward to coming to me and I look forward to seeing them. They are just ready to run all the time. The more I give them, the more they want.”
Following the tour, McQueen said she “thoroughly enjoyed” the time she spent interacting with the students and teachers of UCMS.
“The students are very articulate and clearly have a great relationship with the teachers,” she said. “It was nice to see the integration of that relationship and how (the teachers) are thoroughly looking at their data, thoroughly trying to making improvements and trying to grow kids, but also continually trying to build those relationships.”
When asked what challenges face school systems like Unicoi County, McQueen pointed to several issues.
“I think always you have the challenges of resources,” she said. “… We have to have more students going into post-secondary and to college. You know that vision, but you also need to have resources that are associated with that. In some of our districts across the state we have challenges making that match. We have the vision and now we have to have the support and resources to make it happen.”
To do this, McQueen said the state has increased state funding via the Basic Education Formula, known as BEP in a “dramatic way.”
“There have been historic improvements in teacher salaries,” she added. “There have been historic improvements in making sure we have more technology funding. We have doubled the amount of technology funding for every single school district. We continue to reduce the special education and English language learner student-faculty ratio.”
McQueen also pointed out that last year and this year the state has made the “largest investment” in teacher salaries without a tax increase in the history of education in the state.
“We look to continue to make those kinds of investments over several years,” she added.
English said the school system was happy to welcome McQueen.
“It was an honor to have the commissioner visit our district,” he said. “It was a great opportunity to spotlight our teachers and students and share with her some of the great things going on in the Unicoi County school system.”