College and Career Readiness in Rural Tennessee


teacher_tourAs a former teacher and teacher of teachers, Commissioner of Education, Candice McQueen’s heart is never far from the classroom. In this post, the commissioner recaps her recent stop in Carter, Unicoi, and Cocke Counties on the Classroom Chronicles tour. 

By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education

When I started my administration in January 2015, I set out on the Classroom Chronicles Tour to learn from and show appreciation for teachers and administrators on the ground. Through my travels, I have shared some of the best practices I’ve seen in schools and districts throughout the state.

The last few years have been important as we have transitioned to higher standards in Tennessee. Student and teachers alike have risen to the challenge and are working hard to prepare students for college and careers. This is certainly the case in Carter County. During my visit to Unaka High School, I was handed lesson plans that outlined the standards being taught in each classroom. This wasn’t just for show but rather a daily, district-wide emphasis on alignment to our new, more rigorous standards – and the data show it’s paying off. Last year, Carter County received a level five TVAAS composite score.

1At Unaka High School, I also had the privilege of visiting a one-of-a-kind Career and Technical Education program. Unaka’s meat processing class is the only program of its kind in a Tennessee high school and one of only a few nationwide. Students in Josh Armentrout’s class learn every phase of the meat processing business from slaughter to packaging and walk away with valuable career skills they can use after graduation. Across the building in Phillip Taylor’s class, I saw students using a high-tech computer simulation program to teach automotive skills. It is obvious that Carter County is taking the commitment to college and career readiness seriously.

3In nearby Unicoi County, students led me on a tour of Unicoi Middle School. I saw engaging teachers like Tim Higgins, whose own personal excitement about history instilled a love of learning in his students. Throughout the school, I saw evidence that students, teachers, and administrators were using data to improve instruction. During lunch, I was serenaded with Rocky Top by a student bluegrass band from Unicoi County High School. By the end of my visit, it was clear to me that Unicoi County is a tight knit community with engaging teachers and deep student-teacher relationships.

4Representative Jeremy Faison joined me on the last visit of the day to Northwest Elementary School in Cocke County.  Here I met the principal, Dr. Shannon Grooms, who was the former principal of Grassy Fork Elementary – a struggling school turned Reward School. Dr. Grooms left his position at the district office to lead a similar turnaround effort at Northwest Elementary. During my visit, I saw leaders strategically using data to create a culture of continuous improvement and develop a highly effective teacher workforce. In turn, I saw teachers using their data to identify and meet individual student needs. In the words of Principal Grooms, Northwest Elementary is “on a quest to be the best.”

Carter, Unicoi, and Cocke Counties are all rural districts committed to preparing students for postsecondary opportunities through rigorous, aligned curriculum, deep student-teachers relationships, great leadership, and a strategic use of data. By creating opportunities for students to build the knowledge and skills they need in postsecondary, these districts are providing students the opportunity to be successful in their chosen path in life.