By Jonathan Pleasant
Following their annual Christmas reception downstairs, the full Johnson County School Board held their December monthly meeting last week in the upper conference room of the former Johnson County High School. Supervisor of Instruction, Dr. Michelle Simcox, gave one of the most detailed presentations of the evening, delivering an in depth update on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) Assessment that will eventually take the place of TCAPs and End of Course exams in some courses.
A part of the states new Common Core requirements, the new test comes with a lot of changes from the old pencil and paper, multiple choice exams most students are familiar with. First off, PARCC will be taken exclusively online, either from stationary computers in the schools or on provided IPads with keyboards. In fact, technological specifications were one of the key points of the presentation, especially considering the minimum infrastructure requirements at each school, such as bandwidth.
Fortunately, on the secondary level Johnson County has already been preparing for PARCC, and even in the elementary schools is very close to meeting requirements. Simcox noted that anticipation of PARCC was one of the key reasons that the system has been purchasing IPads, and although some operating systems will eventually have to be upgraded from XP to at least Windows 7, the PARCC software has been relatively inclusive.
The technological aspects aside, Simcox was keen to point out that the school system will also have to adjust the content of the test, which varies greatly from either TCAP or the EOCs. For this reason the system will be doing a preliminary test with four of the countys schools this year. Initially the PARCC will go hand-in-hand with TCAP, although it will be the sole assessment for Math and English/Language Arts. Science and Social Studies will still be on the old system for the time being, even though PARCC is on a much different schedule than the old tests as well.
The biggest advantage of the new assessment is that it allows the system to compare their scores not only against other scores in Tennessee but outside states like California as well. Further, the results of the test are actually intended to guide the student to an appropriate career or college path after high school. However, preparation for the test will likely mean changes in the classroom as well.
Unlike the TCAP, PARCC is much less oriented to multiple choice, preferring the student to actually show their work. As such, 60% of the literacy portion of the assessment will involve writing and even on the math portion of the test students will have to show their work to get complete credit for an answer. Even when there is multiple choice, the test wont be a single best answer and could have multiple correct choices such as A and C, rather than just A.
Also different is a prohibition on calculators for the math portion. Third through sixth grade students will have to show how they worked out the problem on paper with no assistance, and even by the sixth grade level use of calculators will be very limited. According to Simcox the goal of the assessment is to ensure that the students actually understand and comprehend the material and are better prepared for moving on after high school, a fact that many board members such as Howard Carlton viewed very positively.
While Carlton did acknowledge the new assessment would likely be more difficult for parents and teachers trying to help the students, he expressed his belief that the eventual result will be better because these kids have to think through these things.
The board also approved a lease provided by Adult Education Supervisor Jewel Hamm who discussed a move in location for the Carter County Adult Education Program. Because Johnson County was actually awarded the contract governing both counties, the board had to review the document which included a change from within the Workforce Development Complex in Elizabethton to near the airport. With Hamm expressing her belief that the change would be beneficial to the program, the board made the unanimous decision to approve.
There was also a discussion held on upgrading the school systems current management system. At more than a decade old, the STAR system is no longer compatible with state requirements. As a result, not only Johnson County, but many of the surrounding districts are looking at upgrading. Identifying the most likely company, based on what other counties and cities are finding, Director Morris Woodring suggested the board start the process of moving forward. Already approximately two-thirds of the cost of acquiring the new technology has been set aside in the budget, and because it is a mandatory requirement, board member Howard Carlton made the successful motion to proceed.
Director Woodring brought up several other issues at the meeting as well, starting with a request from the Appalachian Service Project (ASP) organization to possibly utilize Laurel Elementary School during the summer as a temporary housing for their volunteers. Dedicated to helping repair and renovate homes that are owned by individuals in serious need, the non-profit organization has had a big impact across the region and has been active in other Johnson County communities in the past.
With the work done entirely by a crew of up to 70 volunteers, ASP has to have access to a location with a USDA certified cafeteria. According to the draft contract that Woodring presented, the ASP would handle temporary showering facilities and would pay for the services of the cafeteria staff. Additionally, ASP would pay the county $6,000 for the use of the building during that time period.
However, while there are benefits to the proposal, several board members also voiced their concerns, highlighting issues of maintenance in case of damage to the property, impact on neighbors near the property, potential trash and clean up and other problems with past agreements. Because some of the items listed in the proposed contract were still questionable, the board decided to table the item and give Director Woodring time to bring someone in from ASP to discuss the proposal in greater depth.
The board also took time to discuss the allocation of recently approved grant funds through the Tennessee Unemployment Compensation Trust, know as U-Trust. With a variety of options ranging from appropriating the grant funding equally among the countys schools, to dividing it up among the teachers, the board weighed the pros and cons of each choice. Ultimately, it was decided that the best route would be to work through the principals of each school who could then identify specific projects that a teacher may be interested in pursuing. At around $4,700, presentations of how the money was used would then come back to the board.
With that decision made, Woodring went on to introduce a draft resolution submitted by the TSBA Delegate Assembly, asking systems to support extending the lives of the bus fleets to 17 years or 200,000 miles. Bus Garage Supervisor Barry Bishop as well as several members of the board voiced their concerns about this proposal, noting the intensive wear and tear that has been put on the vehicles by the end of their terms of service. According to Bishop, not only would extending this period increase the possibility of problems, but it could also pose a safety issue to the students and drivers. Further, Bishop noted that the county would be forced to pay an additional $1,800 in inspection fees to the state for each additional year. With no support, a decision was eventually reached to disregard the resolution.
Aside from the many safe and happy Christmas wishes of the board, the last real business of the evening was an announcement concerning the retirement of long time teacher and former coach, Russell Love. The board expressed their deep appreciation for Loves long time presence in the county, with many board members commenting on their personal respect for the impact he has made. With nothing further to discuss, a motion to adjourn was entertained and accepted.
By Jonathan Pleasant