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With another year nearly in the books, local school systems are looking back at some positive trends.

For Lenoir City High School, that includes increased offerings for students to prepare them for the future.

“Academically, we’re always looking to expand our programs,” Chip Orr, LCHS principal, said. “We’re very happy that we offer quite a bit here and there’s a lot of academic opportunities for our kids through our (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program. Our (Career and Technical Education) programs are one of our strengths of our school. We’re very strong in math and our test scores are coming up.”

The average ACT score for LCHS students in 2018 was 20, which is something to celebrate, Orr said.

“We passed the 20 (mark), which is the average ACT score here,” he said. “That number’s always going to fluctuate a little bit, but we were happy to see that. We’ve made a concerted effort to improve the number of kids that reach the college readiness benchmark in all four areas. We’ve done that, so I think that’s contributed to our average going up.”

The county’s Philadelphia Elementary School has experienced its own academic growth.

“In the past, we’ve had success in academics. We’ve had some new success last year with the TNReady testing,” Marvin Feezell, PES principal, said. “This is the first time we’ve been a reward school, so that was a big step for us. A lot has changed in the last few years with the curriculum, with the testing, with the expectations for students and it continues to evolve.”

Feezell credits much of the success to teachers and professional development initiatives.

“We have done a ton of professional development as a district,” he said. “Within our school, we’ve been doing professional development throughout the day on an ongoing basis through (Professional Learning Communities). We’ve really been trying to hone our craft more specifically to what our needs are.”

Keeping up with tech

Technology has become an important aspect of learning, which is embraced by county and city schools.

Both systems offer personal laptops to students to help broaden the learning experience.

“There’s so much in technology that you can use now,” Cheri Parrish, Loudon High School principal, said. “We’ve gone one-to-one this year at Loudon High School, which means every student has a computer in their hand, every class, every day. That has gone really well. Much to our surprise, the kids have taken really good care of them and we’ve had very few issues with that.

“I think it’s important to stay up-to-date with technology trends,” she added. “When they need to have a certain set of skills to go on to college, there’s so much they need to know. Kids know how to do PowerPoints and how to be able to generate technology online. Hopefully, we develop those skill sets for kids before they leave for school.”

Orr sees how technology can help students excel. LCHS makes online classes available to high achievers.

“When you’ve got a student, say they’re a STEM student and they’re in band and they want to be in singers — they’re the kid that wants to do everything,” Orr said. “In the past, they’ve had to make difficult choices as they got older. They had to cut some things loose because they couldn’t fit it in their schedule. Now, with the digital opportunities that we have, they have online courses right on their laptop. They can take some classes online and free up some time so they can do more things.”

Tackling the issues

One of the biggest challenges schools face today stems from apathy among students.

“We have to push, pull, prod and encourage them to do their best,” Orr said. “As they get closer to their senior year, we want them to take a challenging course load. They don’t always see it that way. They want to coast their senior year and I understand that, but we want to push them a little bit. We’ve also had a challenge, as the kids get older, with attendance. We’re always trying find ways to encourage them to come to school.”

Other challenges come from outside school. Tennessee recently passed a law that requires students to have a physical education class twice a week for 60 minutes.

“The thing is, in education, something new is always going to come along,” Feezell said. “To most people, what’s the big deal? Well, you’ve got one PE teacher for 460 kids, so it’s hard get them in the gym for that much time twice a week. I can get them that much time in a month, but to make it happen specifically the way they want to, it’s going to be a real challenge for us. That can interfere with our teachers’ ability to get together for common planning.”

For a K-8 school like Philadelphia, there are more challenges because of the age differential.

“We are trying to serve needs at an individual level,” Feezell said. “If a student is not performing well, we perform testing three times a year. From these benchmarks, it flags kids that may be behind on their skill levels. We’ll have meetings and pull the data, so we may put that child into intervention, which is called RTI2 (Response to Instruction and Intervention). We’ve expanded that here and we want to look at all kids.”

He believes some students fail to meet common standards due to negative environmental factors.

“There may be a child who’s had a family trauma and if that’s happened you’re not learning in the classroom,” Feezell said. “There may be a child who needs clothing. Some kids just need a mentor — somebody to just check on them during the day. That’s something we do on a daily basis, whether it’s academics, behavior or something else going on. At some point, you do have a limit to your resources. The educational world’s so challenging because the rules are constantly changing.”

Another negative comes through social media. Loudon High School consistently reminds students of the dangers of such platforms.

“I kind of feel that what we’re always behind the eight ball on is teaching kids responsibility on social media,” Parish said. “That’s something you get flooded with daily. We had a guy a couple of years ago from Homeland Security come in and speak to the kids. I think it’s important that kids hear that kind of stuff. I had a couple of FBI agents in the office earlier in the year over a posting somebody had made. He was a former student living somewhere else and it’s kind of scary when they’re looking at postings online. Kids just don’t realize that it follows you forever.”

Room for improvement

While pleased overall, local schools see plenty of room for improvement.

LHS has experienced a 10 percent increase in students who go to college or receive post-secondary education.

“Our graduation rate has gone up significantly over the last several years,” Parish said. “I think we’re doing a better job at making sure that kids and parents understand the necessity of getting a high school diploma. Our Hispanic population is about 20 percent and that has been more valued over the last few years. When I first started here 20 years ago, they were just enrolled here because they had to be. Some of our Hispanic kids are actually graduating at the top of the class and that is so valued in their community.”

Philadelphia has pushed students to consider potential careers and take college visits.

The school recently held a college and career fair for all students, ranging from third to eighth grade.

“We have started more of an emphasis on college and career,” Feezell said. “It’s pretty fun to watch the third-graders go through there. We had 50 different colleges and careers here. We had Matt Hinkin, law enforcement and people from union trades. All the kids had the chance to go up and meet up to nine of those folks. At the end of each year, we take kids in seventh and eighth grades on a college visit. My third grade is going to the University of Tennessee for their field trip this year.”

Feezell is a former ACT instructor and will be providing an ACT prep course for seventh- and eighth-graders.

“Each year, the kid takes the ACT twice,” he said. “We give them a pre-test and then we give them some instruction to integrate it into the classroom. In math class, we’re going to do a few ACT problems. We’re going to an ACT passage in science class. I’ll be teaching the kids the strategies for the test itself. Our school goal is a 17, which puts you at the 70th percentile, nationally, as a middle-schooler. We’re now sending kids to Loudon High School, where they’ve already taken the ACT four times and had a full semester of prep.”

The relationship between teachers and students is another important aspect in education, which LCHS has emphasized the last several years.

“I think one of the things that our teachers do very well here is establishing relationships with kids,” Orr said. “We’ve made a push to emphasize that. Regardless of a kid’s background, they come to us as they come to us. It’s our job to meet them where they are, establish a positive relationship with them and educate them.”

This article originally ran on news-herald.net.