By Ron Woody
The buzz around the Roane County Courthouse and School Board has been what will our leaders do about the future of education in Roane County? The initial discussions were about consolidation of high schools with an acceptable debate change to: What should the delivery of future education services look like? I applaud both the School Board, the County Commission, and the public for focusing the discussion on the future of education and not on consolidation.
So, here we are in 2017 having a discussion that we should have had in the late ’80s and early ’90s. What does education look like today? What should it look like the next 15 to 20 years? Two important meetings have taken place within the last eight months in order to answer these questions. Excerpts of these meetings can be found on http://www.roaneschools.com under district, then High School visioning process. Please take the time to read through these meeting notes to help arrive at your own conclusions. Here are a few of my conclusions from attending the meetings and reviewing the minutes. Roane County should work to:
- expose students to more career opportunities,
- expand the mentoring programs, and
- expand vocational class opportunities.
First, let’s talk about exposing students to more career opportunities. I would have to say that most students’ exposure to career opportunities is that of their parents and teachers. Students admire their teachers, which speaks highly of the work our teachers do each day. Students look up to their teachers and want to go into teaching, which is an admirable profession. Students also see the career paths their parents have taken. The parents’ careers could either encourage or discourage the child’s potential career path. When we think back, we realize that someone probably influenced our career choice, and there’s a good possibility it was a teacher or a parent.
Second, these meetings highlighted the need for stronger mentoring programs. Similar to how we were exposed to our career opportunities, we needed someone to encourage us. Today’s family structure is much different than a few decades ago, and too often there are no longer two parent households. Regardless of the generational changes from “latch key kids” to generation “x”, “y,” and “swipe,” young people still need that one person to encourage, advise, and help them to become productive citizens. Our businesses, corporations, and labor organizations use mentoring programs to grow their new employees. We should also be mentoring our students. Teachers can only do so much; the community must help.
This brings me to the third area: improving the future of education by expanding vocational class opportunities. I feel we had a highly successful vocational program in the 1980s with two vocational high schools and additional programs available through the Department of Energy. In the ’90s, the focus shifted from vocational readiness to college readiness, in large part due to parental emphasis on college attendance and employer emphasis on college degree status. As a result, Roane County started sending a higher percentage of our exiting seniors to college and a lower percentage to trade/vocational training. Many of the incoming college students were not successful in college, which may have had nothing to do with the intellect of the student but more to do with the student’s desire to be in a program which fits his or her aptitude, personality, and desires.
In recent years, the state has begun to spotlight the importance of vocational crafts in the economy of Tennessee. An increase in the career technical education credits required to graduate is just one example of the state emphasis. We believe our local school system should also explore increasing our investment in career technical or vocational education.
The title of this article is, “How far can we move the needle”? The title implies we believe the needle can be moved. We believe we can improve education for our students. The real question then becomes how and at what cost? I have listed three ways, I think we can improve education and move the needle. The first two of which have minimum cost, and I would say minimum risk of failure and high probability of success. The school leadership has partially addressed the mentoring issues with graduation coaches. I’m not sure of the schools’ effort in exposing students to more career opportunities, but I feel this should be an item of discussion and consideration. Regarding expanding the vocational class opportunities, again our educational leadership has partnered with Tennessee College of Applied Technology to expand these opportunities.
All of this brings us back to the initial question: Is consolidation part of the answer, to improve the delivery of education and to help our students achieve more? Could we be able to move the needle of achievement forward with consolidation and, if so, at what cost and what risks? As individuals have approached me the last several weeks about education, I ask them a few questions. First, where would you rank Roane County high schools with a grading system of below 60 being an “F”, 60-70 a “D”, 70-80 a “C”, 80-90 a “B”, and 90-100 an “A”? Then ask yourself these questions, how much can we move the needle to improve the score, at what cost are we willing to pay to take those risks, and what is the best return on our education investment?
Looking at our education campuses and facilities, I think most would agree that Roane County High and Oliver Springs High are the two facilities that have received the least amount of investments over the years. From a facilities standpoint, these two rank in the worst condition.
I challenge our school leadership and the public in general to keep an open mind, ask questions, search out the answers, and maintain civility during the debates.
I will leave you will a quote from Thomas Jefferson which should apply to all our civic debates: “A difference in opinion does not mean a difference in principle.”
Ron Woody is Roane County executive.