Hamilton County schools have some recent success stories to share, but Superintendent Rick Smith says the district cannot stand still. "We are going to have to evolve," he told PTA leaders. "We have to train our teachers to excel in technology-driven classrooms."
Speaking to Hamilton County PTA Council members in his annual "State of the Schools" update, Smith described a fast-moving educational atmosphere "where we have to be ready for what's next."
What's next is an influx of iPads and other personal devices, coming in the near future to students at about a dozen county schools, with a goal of eventually placing them in every school. "Our students need to be technology-fluent," Smith said, "but we have to roll this out slowly. Bandwidth is an issue. Professional development is an issue. Some school districts have just dumped these devices into schools, but if teachers aren't properly trained, the programs don't work."
He said the challenges facing an urban school district include finding the funds to place devices into the hands of a population that includes 57% free and reduced lunch (about 25,000 students). Many students, he said, don't have Internet access at home.
He said for the first time, fifth-graders will join 8th graders and high school juniors in taking the February writing assessment tests online this school year. "That's already causing a lot of anxiety, and we have to get ready for it," Smith said.
Smith praised educators and parents for helping fourteen county schools earn state recognition for recent achievement and improvement. He singled out Thrasher Elementary for being one of only sixteen Tennessee schools to make the state's reward list in both the performance/achievement and progress categories. He also praised Big Ridge, CCA, CSLA, Middle College, Lookout Mountain and Normal Park schools for achievement rewards, and Apison, CGLA, Ganns Middle Valley, Harrison, Orchard Knob Elementary, Snow Hill and Soddy Elementary for improvement rewards. Smith pointed out that Nashville area schools trailed Hamilton County with twelve rewards schools, while Knox County only had five.
The recent announcement of ten Hamilton County students as National Merit Scholars was cited by Smith as an example of high achievement by individual students.
Still, impressive gains in math scores have been offset by slower growth in reading and literacy, and science. "We still have a lot of work to in those categories," Smith said. "The employers we have moving in here insist on higher skills in reading and science."
He told PTA members that the new East Brainerd Elementary would open in 2015, but there are no firm plans to build other new schools. "We are talking about growth in the East Brainerd area and Signal Mountain, and we have to be ready if Volkswagen or another major company makes a big announcement sometime soon." He said talks are still going on about a new school (and an expansion to K-12) for CSLA, and replacements for Falling Water/Ganns and the consolidation of three elementary schools in the Highway 58 area. "We know the needs," Smith said, "and we haven't forgotten about these schools."
"It's an exciting time," he concluded. "I'm enjoying this."