Donna Wright's Reading Initiative

Insights

County Mayor Mike Ragsdale goes around tooting his horn about how great Knox County schools are. Chamber of Commerce President Mike Edwards goes around wringing his hands and warning that our public school ship is sinking. While each can cite statistics to support his claim, their selective use of them is the stuff that fabrications are made of.

The truth of the matter is that our school system has made remarkable progress in some areas but remains woefully deficient in others.

Among the positives: Elementary school test scores are rising steadily toward achieving the national goal of 100 percent proficient by 2014. Last year, for example, third graders scoring proficient on their TCAPs rose to 87 percent from 79 percent in 2003, and those with advanced scores rose even more dramatically to 46 percent from 35. As pre-K and kindergarten intervention programs are offered to more and more students and specialized programs like Project Grad and TAP concentrate on raising the performance of disadvantaged kids at inner-city schools, there's every reason to believe that a lot of further progress will be made.

True, the standard for proficiency itself needs to be strengthened, but the state is in the process of doing this as well. At the high school level, the average ACT score of students taking this college entrance exam has risen to 22, exceeding the national average of 21 that's widely deemed to be the benchmark for college preparedness.

On the other hand, Knox County's high school graduation rate has remained static at 77 percent, far below the state goal of 90 percent. Eight of the county's 12 high schools have been sanctioned by the state for failing to make progress toward that goal, which is more stringent than it might seem because the 13 percent of Knox students who are classified as special ed don't count as graduates even when they complete their individual education plans, as most of them do.     

Perhaps even worse, at the middle school level, the percent of eighth graders who are on track to score 21 or better on the ACT drops to 41 percent from 49 percent of fifth graders coming out of elementary school.

If these deficiencies weren't being assiduously addressed, Edwards' dire foreboding would be warranted. But Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Donna Wright is spearheading what's known as the Literacy Plan for raising expectations and performance of students who've been falling down. More than $3 million in new funding is earmarked for various elements of the plan in the school system's budget for this coming year.

While by no means giving up on high schoolers who are floundering, Wright's initiative is aimed primarily at getting a much higher percentage of middle schoolers on track for high-school graduation and college preparedness. The emphasis is on reading skills because they are a prerequisite for success not only in literature courses but also in science and social studies and to some extent in math.

â“We're changing the complexion of middle school, and more rigorous courses for kids who are ready but not being challenged is the secret to it all,â” Wright says. â“We've been lulling them for three years [in middle school] and then we smack them when they get to high school, and those days have to end,â” she says.

For students with middling TCAP scores between 35 and the 65 level that's needed for projecting a 21 on the ACT, there's a nationally acclaimed program known as AVID (for Advancement Via Individual Determination). More than $300,000 is being spent this summer on training teachers for the individualized counseling role that is an AVID centerpiece. Wright says schools she's visited in Charlotte, N.C., and Austin, Tex., have had â“astounding successâ” with it, and she predicts that by next year 50 percent of eighth graders will be taking algebra, up from 20 percent presently.

For students with TCAP scores below 35, a dozen reading coaches will be put in place this coming year at a cost of $600,000 both to work directly with these students and to serve as coaches for other teachers. A program known as Language X for which materials alone cost over $300,000 is being introduced drawing upon experience in Lake Worth, Fla., where Wright says â“Language X results were extraordinary.â” She adds that â“getting these kids to 65 on TCAP isn't going to happen overnight, but if we gear it student by student as opposed to herding them, it's doable.â”

Measurements of progress along the way don't seem as clear as they might be, but Wright has set a very ambitious set of goals for five years out when today's middle schoolers start graduating from high school. These call for a 90 percent graduation rate, with 90 percent of the graduates taking the ACT and 90 percent of them scoring 21 or higher. That equates to 72 percent of high school seniors well prepared for college and/or skilled jobs, up from less than half today. Moreover, Wright reckons that achievement of these goals would boost the average ACT score of Knox high school graduates above 25, which would be the highest of any school system in the country in a city of Knoxville's size or larger.

One could hardly ask for more than that.         â" Joe Sullivan

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