Innovative Models are Driving Education in East Tennessee


As 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 Alcoa City, Maryville City, Sevier County, and Blount County schools on the Classroom Chronicles tour. 

By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education

Part of why we launched the Classroom Chronicles tour last year is to see where schools are trying creative new approaches and seeing promising results – and then share those best practices for others to consider adopting. I recently had the opportunity to visit schools in four East Tennessee districts, and several of the ideas they were exploring have the potential to be models for schools across the state as they think through how to equip our students for the demands of 2016 – and beyond.

IMG_2330Creating a literal space for modern-day teaching and learning was clearly a priority in Alcoa City Schools. It was clear that the new Alcoa High School was not just a typical, uniform model that students and teachers figured out how to fit into, but as one teacher put it, the building was designed for learning and to enhance opportunities for students to engage with instruction. From everything to the communal spaces, to the faculty lounge, to the health sciences lab – which had built-in bays for hospital beds – to the state-of-the-art weightlifting and athletic facility, every detail was designed with 21st century students and teachers in mind. I saw students excited about what they were doing in class, and teachers commented on how much more they could do in these new spaces.

IMG_2421I also saw a fantastic example of innovation at Maryville Junior High School in Maryville City Schools. The district has transitioned to a 1:1 computing model this year, meaning that every student has access to a device of their own, and as a way to prepare students for the real-world demands, engage students in hands-on learning about technology, and meet a practical need, Maryville Jr. High has established a student-run help desk that is overseen by a technology educator. This is a model that may make sense for other schools to adopt as our classrooms become increasingly equipped with technology. The teachers have also been thoughtful in how they have incorporated technology to personalize learning for all types of students, both using technology get better feedback about how their students are progressing and in establishing some “low tech” days, where they go back to paper, pencil, and the whiteboard.

IMG_2480Another interesting model I got to see in action was at Carpenters Middle School in Blount County. There, students participating in the Pedal Power program read books while pedaling a stationary bike. The school is using this program especially to support students with disabilities and those in Tiers II and III of the Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTI2) initiative. In addition to being a fun and innovative way to keep students engaged in their learning – and literally engaged in physical activity – they are also seeing some early, encouraging results in comparing the growth and proficiency of students who participate in the Pedal Power program with their peers. Students told me they were able to stay focused when they read while biking, instead of getting fidgety, and it was a good way to take a break during the day. We sometimes hear with RTI2 that schools struggle to schedule time for intervention or feel like they have to cut elective classes like PE, and this example shows how some schools are being creative with their approach in a way that ultimately benefits students’ overall development.

29313_etsulogo-ConvertedFinally, the focus on postsecondary was clear in Sevier County, which has recently launched a new program that encompasses an entire system alignment from preschool through “grade 16.” This partnership builds off the existing Sevier County Partners in Progress and Tennessee Promise initiatives, which provide two years of postsecondary education, by giving Sevier County High School graduates an opportunity to earn a four-year degree for free from East Tennessee State University. This is an incredible partnership that will benefit students in this area, and I am looking forward to seeing how this initiative continues to strengthen the college and career focus in Sevier County Schools. When I walked through the classrooms at Northview Academy, students told me how supportive, creative, and engaging their teachers were in helping to push them to become the best they can be, and it’s clear there is a family-feel throughout the school that is growing and nurturing our future leaders.

These are just a few of the innovative examples I’ve seen this year, and as we think about how we can take our educators’ best ideas to scale, I hope all of us continue to identify and support promising practices – and then share those with our larger education community.

Thank you to Sen. Doug Overbey for joining us on the visit to Alcoa High School and Rep. Bob Ramsey for joining the visit to Carpenters Middle School.