School Matters

Twenty years ago, I was an elementary principal in Montgomery County, Virginia. Early that morning, we received a multitude of conflicting reports that something significant had happened in New York City, in Arlington, and in Pennsylvania. At first, it appeared there had been a horrific accident with an airliner, but it quickly became evident it was a coordinated terrorist attack on America. We locked down the building, kept students within the classroom, and did all we could to comfort and assure staff that we were safe. Few of us really understood the significance of this day and the impact it would have on our nation.

It is hard to believe that two decades have passed since this fateful day and this is the twentieth anniversary of September 11, 2001. It is also difficult to think that virtually no student enrolled in our school system would have been alive on that day. Each page of my life seems to turn more quickly as I get older, and I spend a little more time reflecting on days which have passed. As I remember that day, many of my thoughts centered on the sorrow for families who lost loved ones and friends. I also remember the uncertainty and fear associated with the potential of new attacks. It was a painful and disconcerting period for many of us.

Although none of us would want to experience September 11 again, September 12 was also an important day. This was a day in which America came together, and it seems to mean something more to be an American. There was a common theme and message throughout the newspapers, television, radio, and music which began to formulate on September 12. Countless communities were adorned with the American Flag, citizens began to outwardly express their appreciation for those serving in the armed forces, patriotic songs inundated the airwaves, patriotism was at an all-time high, and there was a greater sense of unity. It meant something to be an American, and there was a great deal of pride in our nation. It is important to note that not all of our actions were pure and commendable after 9/11. We converted some of our fear into hatred and suspension for specific groups in America who had nothing to do with the tragedy. It is my hope we learned from some of those mistakes and are now more accepting. Although there were issues, I remember being proud to be an American as we united against a common foe.

September 11 was a horrific day, but September 12 was the start of something special in this nation. As I reflected back on those days some 20 years ago, I long for that feeling of September 12. Our nation was unified, there was extreme pride in being an American, and we stood by each other. Today, it seems that we are not as unified and have become more like a confederation of multiple interest groups as opposed to being of one mind. Today, it seems that we are more focused on the elements which separate us - as opposed to those things which unite us. Today, it seems that we concentrate on the individual attributes which make us special - as opposed to utilizing those special skills to help those around us be successful. Today, it seems that we are looking out for what is best for our individual interests than what is best for our community, state, and nation. Today, it seems we place an emphasis on our individual suffering and tribulations instead of reaching out to ease the pain of others.

During this time of reflection, it may be a great opportunity to pause and consider what it means to be one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. It is extremely easy to recite the pledge from memory, but it takes a considerable amount of commitment, energy, understanding, and sacrifice to actually live those words. One nation is a difficult concept when we are a country of so many different groups. All of us must be willing to give up something, and appreciate the differences in others, for us to realize that concept of one nation. It is also important to note that we are committed to liberty and justice for all. Not just those who look like us; not just for those who believe as we do; not just for those who share the same political values as we do; but for all. Those last two words (for all) are very important because they demand an inclusive belief system as opposed to an exclusive one.

During these challenging times, it may benefit us to seek understanding of others and not be so focused on the righteousness of our own beliefs. Our nation, and eventually all of us, would be more enriched if we were more unified and search for a common purpose. Last weekend, I was in one of our large farm supply stores. There were at least 20 people wanting to check out, but there were only two cashiers. One of the cashiers had trouble with her station, and it had to shut down. Immediately, the groans from the long line began, and one of those individuals began to verbally abuse the cashier. Finally, one person came to her defense. He stated that at least she showed up for work today when so many were not willing to make the effort and that all of us should appreciate her being there. Few were pleased their wait was going to be extended, but there was a changed atmosphere because of his words. I was frustrated with the wait, but I had to appreciate the fact that she did show up when so many refused to do so. Perhaps our community would be better if more of us stood up and pointed out that at least – an individual had come to work and was trying.

Please take a moment to review the following and contact us if you have any questions or concerns. We will respond to those concerns in our next article. Please email Mrs. Karlene Webb (webbk@hcboe.net) with any concerns or questions.

1. This week, we have seen a significant stabilization of cases within the school district. Clearly, our numbers are still high, and we have concerns. However, the rapid increase we have experienced over the last four weeks has leveled off, and our cases may be plateauing. Last week, we had 285 active cases, and this week we are down to 117. Of those active cases this week, 104 are students and 13 are staff. Overall, we have seen a total of 952 cases since the start of this school year.

2. Again, this week, we are asking parents to consider having their child wear a mask indoors for the next 2 weeks to help slow the spread of the virus. We are not changing any policy, and we are not creating a mask mandate. However, we strongly encourage everyone to wear a mask for the next 2 weeks while they are inside the school and on the bus. Again, it is our hope we can take some of these precautions for the next couple of weeks in the hope our numbers will stabilize.

3. There are a number of ways to measure success in school, and many of these methods are legitimate. One way is to determine overall academic performance. This performance can be calculated by determining the total percentage of students passing all state-mandated tests. Since the tests could be different each year, I have found the most reliable way to measure progress is to compare our district with the rest of the state. For example, virtually everyone in the state saw a reduction in scores last year because of the pandemic and loss of instructional time. However, a district can determine if they saw a smaller reduction or a larger reduction in scores if we look at state rankings. This may be one of the most effective ways of determining how we are doing academically.

In 2017, we were ranked 94th in the state. This means that about 93 other districts outperformed us. In 2019, we were ranked 82nd in the state. In 2021, we were ranked 59th. Clearly, we still want to make considerable progress, but we moved 35 spots since 2017. This is an impressive amount of growth considering all that we have endured, and we need to celebrate that success. We will provide a more in-depth analysis of our academic progress and areas needing attention in a future article, but we are making significant progress. Our teachers, administrative staff, and students have done an excellent job during challenging times, and we are appreciative of their efforts.

4. We are always looking for substitute teachers and bus drivers. Please contact Mrs. Jessica Darnell if you are interested in substitute teaching (darnellj@hcboe.net) and Mr. Rodney Long (longr@hcboe.net) if you are interested in driving a bus. It is important to note that the school district provides full health insurance coverage for bus drivers.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have seen a number of signs which have demonstrated support and appreciation for those who have served this nation and for first responders. This is something we need to do at all times, but this is a special time in which we should be more conscientious about expressing our appreciation. I recently saw a sign which made me stop and think about our current situation. The sign said, “If you really want to thank a veteran – make sure you are the type of American worth fighting for.” We do live in an incredible country with so many freedoms. We enjoy a quality of living beyond the reach of most of the world. It is important that we be the type of American who appreciates this and is constantly living a life that would encourage others to want to be an American also. Thanks for your attention to this article and remember, School Matters!

-Dr. Jeff Perry is superintendent of Hamblen County Schools.