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 Knox County on the Classroom Chronicles tour.
By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Education Commissioner
Historically, public schools have been the heart of the community in which they exist, informing the identity of an area and creating opportunities for the community to serve its youngest residents. So, it is not surprising to see a number of public schools reengaging in this type of work as they seek to serve children both academically and socio-emotionally. During one of my latest travels across the state, I had the opportunity to see community schools in Knox County. It was a pleasure to spend the afternoon witnessing the work at South Knoxville and Pond Gap Elementary schools. Both schools are part of Knox County’s Great Schools Partnership, a network of community schools serving students and families after hours. Unlike some community schools in which I have observed a national model or a one-size-fits-all approach, the community schools in Knox County are created around local needs and the specific values inherent to the neighborhood in which the community school exists. As a result, each school has a different menu of services tailored to the varied possibilities in each community.
As I spent time with both Dr. Jim McIntyre, director of Knox County Schools and Buzz Thomas of the Great Schools Partnership, I learned that the Knox County community schools are uniquely designed by school-based community advisory groups that determine the wish list of services needed at a particular neighborhood school. Then, groups such as the Great Schools Partnership, work with the district to connect funding and resources to the stated school needs.
While at Pond Gap Elementary School, I saw how a focus on extended programming after school engaged children in activities that connected to the whole child – from gardening to connecting music to math and reading skills to physical activity. Students not only had extended time for learning, but they also learned from exceptional instructors in different ways than they engaged during the regular school day. While at South Knoxville Elementary School, I saw how the school used a variety of community partners to engage with students, such as an after-school bike club with the Boys and Girls Club. In addition, at both of these community schools, children and their parents had the option of eating dinner at the school, ensuring that families have access to nutritious meals and further creating a sense of community in the program.
The benefits of community schools are easy to identify. These schools become the central location for information and services for children who need it the most. Other benefits include connecting community partners and funding opportunities directly to needs. Moreover, in the schools I visited, the community schools program directors noted that overall parent involvement improved as parents engaged in after-school programming that then led to more parent engagement overall. While the benefits seem obvious, funding opportunities can be a challenge and showing a direct connection to academic growth takes time. It is encouraging that Knox County is monitoring both closely. The state of Tennessee can benefit from fully following and sharing the results from Knox County. I am personally energized by the work and will be eagerly watching the progress in these schools over the next few years.