Connecting with 10,000 Teachers: Rutherford County Preps Students with Early Foundations to College & Career Skills

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

By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Education Commissioner

Many thanks to Rutherford County Director of Schools Don Odom for hosting my recent visit to two Rutherford County schools and allowing me to announce the state’s new Assessment Task Force during the visit (you can read more about the task force here).

Early Foundations

This year, the Tennessee Department of Education will be launching a new strategic plan that will outline priorities and action plans for the next few years.  This plan is both critical and exciting because it will help us take learning in the state to the next level. One of our priorities will be early foundations or how we best support students in their most critical years as they learn literacy and numeracy skills that will last a lifetime.

Commissioner McQueen reads to a kindergarten class at Barfield Elementary.

While in Rutherford County, I was encouraged to see a focus on intentional and monitored early literacy skills (as well as strong reading strategies) at Barfield Elementary School as I visited various classrooms and spoke to the principal, Judy Goodwin, and her teachers.  While reading, Are You My Mother? to a group of kindergarten students, I witnessed the students using decoding to read new words as well as using context and graphic clues to define and explain new vocabulary.  Both Ms. Goodwin, and the teacher, Ms. Hollandsworth, modeled comprehension strategies and used accountable talk methods to help students engage in conversation about the book as we read (in fact, students were so engaged that they corrected me while I read).  The class easily moved to a full understanding of the book as the teacher and students incorporated questioning, talking, and interactive reading during the lesson.  Also at Barfield Elementary, I was privileged to see Ms. Patterson, a fourth-grade teacher, who was building on the skills taught in the early grades as she took her class deep into a nonfiction science text to identify facts and arguments being made by the author.  We know that an intentional focus on nonfiction reading skills and strategies sets students up for success in middle school as content and reading length expectations continue to grow.

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Commissioner McQueen holds a parrot during her visit to the Stewarts Creek Vet Science lab.

Bridge to College and Career

Another one of the department’s strategic priorities will be high school strategies and the bridge to postsecondary.  My visit to Stewarts Creek High School showed both a focus on career and technical education (CTE) while implementing a strong plan for ACT readiness. I was pleased to see that students were deeply engaged in varied CTE opportunities that are unique in the state – such as dental hygiene – and vital to the Murfreesboro and Smyrna communities.  To date, I have not been in a school with such a phenomenal facility for so many CTE options – from the greenhouse to the veterinary area to the culinary arts program to the computer programming and repair store.  Beyond the beautiful facility, I was pleased to meet engaging faculty with expertise in each area coupled with a love for working with high school students.  This combination of state-of-the-art workspace and expert teaching will surely result in motivated students with skills for the community.  At the same time, students were actively preparing for the upcoming ACT date through intentional planning and monitoring of progress by the leadership at Stewarts Creek.  I was able to talk to students who shared how the school’s ACT boot camp promoted intentional growth and how ACT skills in the classroom had prepared them for the college and career readiness benchmark test while also helping them realize the dreams of attending college – with scholarship money.

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Commissioner McQueen gets a tour of the automotive repairs garage at Stewart Creeks High.

My day in Rutherford County ultimately highlighted the strong leadership in the county.  It was clear that intentional decision-making with a focus on students existed – from a focus on early literacy to preparing students for specific community jobs or the ACT.

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