BY KAREN CAMPBELL
Weakley County Schools Communications Director
WEAKLEY COUNTY (March 14) – Public education is appearing in headlines across the state as the Tennessee General Assembly gathers to discuss everything from funding to learning loss and student achievement. And, as in much of life, local educators are noting that what may be “best for all” is not best for Weakley.
State laws – written by legislators – often dictate what will and will not be covered in public school classrooms. The state legislature also passes a budget and – if leaders have their way this session, a whole new way of funding. Education groups lobby for superintendents’ and teachers’ perspective and if representative government is at its best, the people decide.
However, a big state with diverse opinions and other groups lobbying for their concerns means a rural county in West Tennessee may or may not see themselves reflected in decisions made.
Fortunately, not all forms of state guidance are dictated. While standards are set as to when and how students develop reading, writing, science, social studies, and math skills, districts do get to determine what curriculum will help them do that.
In Weakley County’s case, for example, a team of teachers helped choose the curriculum that kindergarten through fifth-grade students are currently using for English Language Arts. That means a first grader and his fourth-grade sister are talking about the same kinds of things in a given time period.
The benefits of coordinated curriculum like this are only beginning to be explored. But one plus was identified when the curriculum served as the basis for the content of a customized response to anticipated learning loss. When legislators were sounding the alarm for learning loss during the height of COVID, another team of Weakley teachers brainstormed about the best approach to required summer classes. Knowing students and their love of hands-on experiences, a camp-like approach was taken as Summer Scholars gathered last summer and will once again gather in 2022.
After teachers reviewed initial test scores in 2021, the after-school tutoring program shaped plans to help address specific individualized learning loss. Teachers are working directly with the tutors and student-specific plans are answering student needs.
“If we had focused solely on adhering to the state-specified directives, we might have qualified for the Best for All designation that many counties have recently received, but we wouldn’t have been listening to our teachers and focusing on the specific concerns for our students,” noted Randy Frazier, Director of Weakley County Schools.
“Winning that acclaim meant we had to agree to spend federal emergency funds the way the state dictated and follow their suggested tutoring plan,” he added. “However, we have administrators and teachers who are in tune with our students, and we could not justify going against what we felt was best for Weakley County.”
As a result of surveying, listening, and customizing, Weakley County Schools boast the following:
- The average composite ACT score for WCS’ students for 2021 was 20.2. (The state average was 19.1.)
- The 2021 Graduation Rate for Weakley County Schools was 93.1 percent. (The state average was 89.7 percent.)
- The state’s Reward School status is consistently achieved by one or more schools each year. Greenfield earned the recognition last year.
- Weakley County Schools elementary reading and math achievement is in the top 10 percent in the region.
- Each school works closely with area government, business, and agricultural leaders to provide customized, age-appropriate introductions to all aspects of economic development in the region.
- Thanks to partners such as Farm Bureau Women, second graders have discovered the incubation process of eggs and preschoolers have watched hanging gardens grow. Ag in the Classroom can be found inside with small hydroponic systems or outdoors in places like Sharon’s school garden.
- Career exploration classes are offered during middle school. Work-based learning opportunities are available to seniors and can be in the form of paid or unpaid internships in the student’s future career field or work experience to develop critical soft skills such as time management and customer service.
- Students can earn college credit in dual enrollment courses and/or receive certification in areas such as OSHA 10, CPR and First Aid, Personal Finance, and the list is growing.
- School-based enterprises can be found in all four high schools. Students at Dresden, Greenfield, and Westview now have greenhouses. CNC machines are located at each of the four high schools. Screen printing and sublimation printing at Dresden and Westview allow for t-shirt and other product production. Westview also offers graphic design which includes etching and engraving production.
- WCS high schools’ HOSA, FBLA, FCCLA, and FFA are consistently award-winning organizations.
- The Weakley County Schools Livestock Production Farm includes forages, row crops, beef, and pork. The sale of the student-raised meats is another school-based enterprise. The 65-acre farm is located adjacent to Dresden High School. Partners include the University of Tennessee at Martin, Tosh Farms, Nutrien Ag Solutions, and Weakley Farmers Co-op.
The school system’s estimated $36 million budget is roughly divided into a 76/24 split with the largest percentage of funding coming from state and federal sources and 24 percent covered by local taxes. If the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act passes and replaces the Basic Education Plan, that local number could soon be expected to increase.
“We have known for some time that the BEP presents a system like ours with problems. Based on its confines, Weakley County would only have funding for one and a half assistant principals. We couldn’t have a nurse in every school,” Frazier explained. “So, we have been dependent on local funding – and by that we mean our families buying local and investing locally – for some time. To keep the customization that we are doing to meet our children’s needs, we are going to need to continue to ask that of our families and county government.”
With 10 schools located in five communities, Weakley County is the largest school system in northwest Tennessee and the second largest employer in the county.
“Age-band educational supervisors; coaches for elementary reading and elementary, middle and high school math; coordinators for school health and school safety; and a director working with our career and technological education options mean we are at the ready to make some hard decisions that may sometimes go against the recommendations of the state,” concluded Frazier. “But they are working with the best assets we have – our teachers – and identifying the means to ensure our students have the best we can offer. That’s public education at its best – meeting the needs of students and growing them to be productive members of our community.”