School starts this week, and Hamilton County school officials say this year will take a more personalized approach to students’ education.
“We’re putting a lot of focus, especially at the beginning of the year, on the personalization side of school,” Superintendent Justin Robertson said in a phone interview. “So, we know that we’ve got to continue with academic progress, but we also know that coming out of the last couple of years that kids need to feel valued and have a sense of belonging.”
Robertson said that means pushing educators to know their students and families on a deeper level and encouraging students to create relationships with one another.
“There are strategies in (the district’s) framework on the personalization side that are ensuring that students feel connected to each other, that they feel connected to their teachers and feel connected to the community,” Robertson said.
The framework, passed by the Board of Education in June, includes social, emotional and academic development, which integrates all three aspects of learning into a student’s education to support whole-child development.
The district has outlined three focus areas: student to student, student to educators and student to school community. Schools will choose one to two priorities within each focus area. Examples of those priorities include student belonging and connection, student voice and parent/family engagement.
“We’ve struggled the last couple of years getting parents into buildings, whether that was due to COVID, or due to some things that we weren’t doing proactively enough,” Robertson said. “And so, what parents should expect is for there to be opportunities for them to interact with the staff, to be in the building and more volunteer opportunities.”
Following the May 24 mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the board voted to invest $950,000 to put a school safety officer in every school. The Hamilton County Commission later OK’d an additional $1 million toward the effort.
As of Friday, the school has filled 28 of the 29 newly-funded security officer positions, spokesman Steve Doremus said by email. The majority will be on duty starting the first day of school Wednesday, and all will start by Aug. 15.
A school security officer can carry a weapon, detain suspects and use force. However, they are not authorized to make arrests.
While the district is poised to begin the year from a staffing standpoint, many teachers — in Hamilton County and nationally — still suffer from burnout due to the pandemic. Robertson said all Hamilton County Schools’ employees have access to mental health and counseling services should they choose to use them.
Another aspect of alleviating burnout is allowing teachers to have a voice, Robertson said.
“We’ve also heard … that they don’t feel like they have enough input, especially in regards to the climate within the school,” he said. “And, so, we’re looking at getting more regular cycles of input from not just teachers, but also from parents.”
With the emergence of the omicron BA.5 subvariant, COVID-19 cases are surging once again. The district offers a separate virtual school, in which approximately 400 children are enrolled, Robertson said.
“We’re going to continue to track and monitor the data like we always have,” Robertson said. “We do not have a reopening plan like we have the last two years. What we do have is a health plan that’s posted on our website.”
The health plan is a comprehensive guide for mitigating exposure to COVID-19. It also outlines what options parents have in the event their child contracts COVID-19 or comes into close contact with an infected student.
Hamilton County schools have no mask policy in place, allowing parents to choose whether their child will wear a mask at school.
“If we get to a place at individual schools where staffing becomes an issue or a high number of kids are infected, we do have the option at the state level to submit a waiver for schools to go to virtual learning,” Robertson said.
Tennessee Republican lawmakers have passed a variety of new laws that will affect K-12 public schools this year. Most of those laws went into effect July 1. They include:
— Transgender student athletes: A new law prohibits transgender students from participating in sports based on their gender identity. The bill penalizes schools that do not comply with the law by withholding a portion of state funds. Hamilton County Schools passed a new athletics policy in late July that defines a student’s gender as their sex at birth.
— Ongoing staffing shortages: To address nationwide staffing shortages, a new bill removes barriers for retired members of the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System to be re-employed as a teacher or a substitute without the total loss of their benefits. Prior to July 1, retired teachers could only return to work for a maximum of 120 days. Now they can be employed full-time and continue to receive 70% of their retirement allowance.
— Obscene content on computers: The new law requires internet vendors that contract with schools to comply with state law prohibiting pornography and obscene materials from school computers. If they do not comply, it allows school districts to withhold payments and terminate the contract. The law also requires districts to develop a way for parents to report a failure of the technology and to submit an annual report to the State Board of Education of the success and failures of the chosen technology.
— A new 10-point grading system: Tennessee is currently on a seven-point grading system but it will switch to a 10-point system once school starts. That means for a student to receive an “A” grade in the old system, they had to score a percentage of points within the range of 93 to 100. Now to receive an “A” they must score in the range of 90-100 percentage points.
— Prohibiting abortion advocacy: Current Tennessee law prohibits school districts from using the services of individuals or organizations to assist in teaching family life if that individual or organization endorses student promiscuity or anything other than abstinence. The new bill extends that prohibition to include individuals or organizations that perform, induce, or support abortion.
— Expanding human trafficking training: Each school employee will now be required to undergo training every three years on the detection, intervention and treatment of human trafficking in which a child is a victim.
— New teacher evaluation criteria: Under the new law, student achievement will be a greater component in teacher evaluation scores. It lowers the teacher observation component of the evaluation from 50% to 40% and increases the student achievement component from 15% to 25%.
Contact Carmen Nesbitt at email@example.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.