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Education Round Table

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As city, county, and state political leaders enter office, it’s a good time to focus on the state of primary and secondary education in Knoxville. To that end, Cityview invited three local education leaders to participate in a round table discussion: Dr. Anthony Wise, president of Pellissippi State Community College; Ronni Chandler, the executive director of Project GRAD Knoxville; and Nathan Langlois, the principal of Austin-East High School. Cityview Editor Keith Norris served as moderator.

As governor, Bill Haslam made education a top priority. Believing that a highly skilled workforce is crucial to Tennessee’s economic success, he launched the Drive to 55 initiative which aims to raise the percentage of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate to 55 percent of the population. According to state estimates, more than half of the jobs in 2025 will require post-secondary education. To attract business to the state and increase the number of good paying jobs, Haslam believed that Tennessee must significantly increase the numbers of highly skilled workers. Central to this goal are Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect. The former provides two years of tuition-free technical or community college to newly minted high school graduates, and the latter provides tuition-free technical or community college to adults who do not already have a degree.

During the tenure of President Anthony Wise, Pellissippi State Community College has been at the center of these efforts. It worked with KnoxAchieves and tnAchieves, the programs that became the template for Tennessee Promise. In addition, it offered free college to adults a full year before the roll-out of the state-wide Tennessee Reconnect. In 2015, President Obama visited Pellissippi State to announce his own initiative to provide free post-secondary education nationwide.

Ronni Chandler has worked at Project GRAD Knoxville since its inception in 2001, first as a program director and now as executive director and CEO. Project GRAD works with local high schools to increase high school graduation rates and the number of graduates moving on to college. A former student and employee at Pellissippi State, she was given that institution’s Distinguished Alumna Award in 2016 for her efforts to encourage academic success.

Nathan Langlois, the principal of Austin-East Magnet High School, has been with Knoxville schools since 2010. The school has a storied past: in 1968, Austin East, a black high school established in 1879, merged with East High school to form a new, racially integrated high school. Before becoming principal at Austin-East, Langlois was principal at Powell High School; before that he was assistant principal at Hardin Valley Academy.

Keith Norris: In the last few months of his tenure as governor, Bill Haslam called Tennessee’s community college graduation rate miserable. So, let’s address that topic first. Dr. Wise, is graduation from a two-year college a measurement of success?
Dr. Anthony Wise: The graduation rate is one way of measuring success; it’s used to determine the number of first-time full-time students who graduate from community college in three years. It’s improved significantly, but as the governor suggested, there’s probably more work to do. But it’s not the only measure. Community colleges work with a large number of part-time students who never end up in any graduation rate. A lot of students just take a class or two for themselves or to improve their business skills.
Norris: How should we measure college success?
Wise: When I think about Pellissippi State, I look at graduation and transfers. A lot of students come to Pellissippi for a year and then go on to their next institution. If those students are well prepared to be successful at the University of Tennessee or any of our other four-year partners, then those students are successful though they never appear in our graduation rate.
Norris: Mr. Langlois, last year in Tennessee 19 percent of high school graduates were college ready across all subject areas. How do we improve college readiness?
Nathan Langlois: I think the biggest way we’re going to improve college readiness is professional development for our teachers. At the end of the day, we really have to be invested in our teachers and make sure they’re doing the best job possible to prepare our students for success after high school. Most of our teachers come from the University of Tennessee or colleges that surround Knoxville. But we have to expand where we get our teachers from. We need more African-American educators, more Hispanic educators. Students need to see diversity while they learn.
Norris: Ms. Chandler, a similar question. To what degree are students in primary education ready for secondary and high school. What metrics do you use to measure success in Project GRAD?
Ronni Chandler: The metrics are the ones that our state uses. So, we ask what does it mean that we’re better than the state in math, English, language arts — what does that mean? The ACT has two pieces we have to be concerned about. One is the content knowledge and the other is the test-taking skill itself.
Norris: Is the ACT a good measure of success?
Chandler: The ACT is a measure. And it’s what our state has decided is the measure, but it’s just one measure. It’s a snapshot of a student’s testing. There are other ways that kids can demonstrate success, such as with personalized portfolio learning. If we tell our students and our teachers that they’re successful or not based on a test, then I think we’re sending an unintended message.
Langlois: The ACT serves a purpose, but it measures 11 years of learning, from first grade all the way through high school. If students aren’t getting the skills they need along the way, then they’re going to fall behind. If the ACT is only thing that we really use, then we’re cutting out folks who may have struggled early on but still have the ability to be very successful later in life.
Norris: I want to ask about dual-enrollment, which allows high school students to take college classes while still in high school. Has that been a good thing?
Wise: I do think it’s a good thing, but I think it’s probably not been distributed well enough across the student population of our service area. It’s just as important that kids from Austin-East get an early post-secondary experience as do kids from Farragut and Hardin Valley. A lot of dual-enrollment historically has been geared toward students who are already prepared for college. Most of them don’t end up at a community college; they go on to a university or a private institution.
Norris: Mr. Langlois, as a high school principal, what do you think of dual enrollment?
Langlois: I think it’s always good when you can expose high school students to college rigor. I do have a couple of concerns about dual enrollment. One is that a lot of dual enrollment courses require a certain ACT score, so again we go back to this gateway score that you have to have for access. Colleges and universities have certain standards that they have to meet, so I’d like to see colleges and universities work with accreditation institutions to get waivers for some of the students who are close.
Norris: Let’s talk about reading. What level are students reading at now?
Chandler: Our students are not reading at the level we want. We’re beating the state average, but we’re not where we want to be. Help has got to start before our kids even get to school. Kids raised in challenging financial circumstances enter school with a million words less than students from more affluent circumstances. When they start school, there’s already a gap.
Norris: Mr. Langlois, to what degree can we improve student reading while they are in high school?
Langlois: We can improve it, but the question is can we improve it enough so that students are successful in those assessments that say they are ready for college. If a kid can’t read or reads at a low level, then our interventions have to focus on helping them read. You have to be able to read before you can access information. But it gets difficult when resources are limited.
Norris: Dr. Wise, reading readiness can affect students across the higher education curriculum. How do we help students who come in challenged?
Wise: Pellissippi State is one of twelve community colleges in Tennessee participating in a project called Achieving the Dream. It’s geared toward equitable outcomes in higher education and a lot of the conversation we’ve had this academic year have been about reading readiness. We probably have 15-17 percent of students every fall who earn no academic credit, and reading is closely connected with those outcomes. Many of our students now take a reading course and college success course in the first semester. It works for some students, but not all. It’s hard to teach somebody to read in 15 weeks if they haven’t learned in 12 years.
Norris: Mr. Langlois, I want to start talking about student equity and equity across the programs. What are some challenges we have across the county and maybe across the region?
Langlois: I think a lot of the equity issue comes from the way we fund our schools. There is a formula that tries to bring about equality instead of equity; what I mean is that they want to give everybody the same piece of pie. I get 10 percent, you get 10 percent. But the question is, is the 10 percent you’re working with like the 10 percent I’m working with? Students are different. Some students come to us with significant gaps, other students don’t. If your school has a high level of poverty and a lot of your students can’t read or write, it needs certain resources in order to make sure those kids get what they need. When we talk about equity, we’re really talking about whether the funding formula is fair.
Norris: Ms. Chandler, can you address that as well?
Chandler: I really think there’s not a clear understanding about the difference between equality and equity. Equality is giving everybody the same. Equity is giving what is needed. That’s not the same thing. That shows up when students are not well prepared because of challenges in their home neighborhood. How do we provide more to help that student? Students who have lots of role models and come from families with higher education in their backgrounds have a different ability to think about STEM than a kid who is intimidated by a math class or by reading because their skills are not where they need to be.
Norris: Can you remind us what STEM is?
Chandler: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
Norris: Dr. Wise, I want to address that at the community college level, especially since we have multiple campuses seeking to provide students an equitable education.
Wise: I really think this is where the governor’s comments come from. If you look at programs like Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect, they’re really designed at the point of access. But if you look at the last three or four years, there are significant disparities in terms of outcomes. I think ultimately that if the governor’s Drive to 55 initiative is going to be successful, you’ve got to strive for equitable outcomes for the poorest Tennesseans. How can we provide support? Institutions now look at things like food scarcity and the number of students who are homeless. How can we provide those extra layers of support so that a student feels secure enough economically that they can do the hard academic work that is required to be successful?

“The leaders we need tomorrow are in our public schools today.” – Ronni Chandler, Executive Director of Project GRAD Knoxville

Norris: How do we make funding equitable?
Langlois: It starts with conversations; it starts with an awareness of what’s happening in education today. It’s going to take a team effort. At the end of the day, Knoxville’s viability is only going to be as good as what its schools produce. Companies aren’t going to want to come here if they don’t feel our work force has the skills needed to be successful. It’s a strategic issue for our community; everyone needs to be involved in the conversation. We have to commit to our young people and put our money where our mouth is.
Norris: Ms. Chandler, where do we get the money?
Chandler: It’s going to take all of us. It may take more funding from the state and local level, but that means we have to decide as individuals whether to pay more. I’ll pay more for kids to have what they need. We also need engagement from the business and industry community because there’s a lot of talk about a diverse and talented work force for our region. The leaders we need tomorrow are in our public schools today.
Norris: Dr. Wise, has Tennessee Promise helped?
Wise: I do think it has helped. If you look at the outcomes for Promise, it’s kept more students on the pathway in terms of retention and completion and success. I think ultimately the measure of success for many of Gov. Haslam’s initiatives are going to be where we are five, ten, fifteen years down the road. If ultimately, they serve the middle- and upper-class communities that live in West Knoxville – well, that’s nice to have, but if you’re talking critical change in our communities, they’ve got to work for all the children who come out of our public schools.
Chandler: I think the community needs a better understanding of what public school is. I think that there is also not enough understanding of the size of our own public-school system in Knox county. Our school district is among the 100 largest metropolitan school districts in the country. We’re around number 67. We’re larger than Boston public schools; we’re larger than Atlanta public schools. There are more than 60,000 kids in the school system. We have urban, rural, and suburban kids in one school district; there are a lot of challenges, and not everything that needs to get done can be done by the school system alone. It’s going to take all of us. And whether you have kids in public school or not, having a quality public school in every neighborhood is everybody’s business.
Norris: Like everybody, I want a break on my taxes. How do you talk to people who don’t have kids in school? How do you convince them to support more funding?
Chandler: It’s what do we want for our community.
Langlois: These kids are our future. Do you want your kid to be able to read and write? Do you want your kid to be successful in college and pursue a career? You’re either going to invest in young people and help them find their potential and give back to the community, or they are going to get frustrated and angry and probably make bad decisions that our going to cost our community.
Norris: I assume that all of us took a civics class. What about learning about government structure? In my last years as a teacher, I’ve run into students who just weren’t aware of how government worked.
Chandler: Take them to a school board meeting, take them to a county commission meeting, take them to a city council meeting, so that they can see their representatives in action. It’s not just about understanding how government works, but also about civility and dialogue. We can have powerful and heated conversation, but we need to do so respectfully. Again, those are skills that people can be taught. Empathy is the ability to understand and to share the feelings of somebody else. We have to be taught that, and where are they getting those models? A connection with a caring adult makes a huge difference to a kid that has a high level of stress. How do they learn to listen deeply without judgment? Because that’s what empathy requires and those are skills that have to be taught.
Norris: Over the course of years, we’ve seen curriculums tighten up and some subjects eliminated. How do we still get civic engagement in there?
Wise: A lot of the ways we try to do it now is co-curricular with things like Service Learning; having faculty committed to bringing learning experiences off campus into their courses. They might have students not only learning about homelessness in the classroom, but also participating in a social project and then reflecting upon it. We’ve got a food pantry right there in the center of our academic buildings. We’ve got a garden next to the recreation center, and that reflects the fact that many students don’t have enough to eat. They have to make a decision between paying the power bill and feeding their kids. That’s tough.
Chandler: You even do that for Project GRAD kids in the summer institute that you do. There’s a service project that’s built into the summer institute you provide for our kids.
Langlois: I think anytime you can put young people in a situation that requires them to call on their skills or requires them to collaborate, that’s a great thing. You can tell me how a rocket works, but if you actually let me build and launch the rocket, and solve problems along the way, that’s the learning that’s going to stick. Programs like Project GRAD that allow our students to have authentic experiences make a huge difference.
Chandler: When we help kids discover their purpose, it changes the choices they make. You have to start early. You don’t get an oak tree until you have an acorn. It has to start early with exposure, experience, and opportunities for young people. We have to expand the horizon of what they see as possible.


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