Pre-K to Paperclips: Polk & Marion Counties Engage All Students


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 stops in Polk County and Marion County on the Classroom Chronicles tour. 

By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education

Recently I traveled to southeast Tennessee to visit teachers in Polk and Marion counties. As I walked through the halls, I immediately noticed how these schools were working diligently to engage every student and ensure their future success.

Pre-K sets the stage for success


Commissioner McQueen engages with pre-K students in Polk County

My morning began with a visit to Benton Elementary School (BES) in Polk County.  While I was there, I saw two pre-K classrooms serving a total of 40 students. The goal of Benton’s pre-K program is to reduce the number of struggling readers who enter kindergarten. To meet this goal, the school set seven specific literacy goals for each child and they integrated literacy into all of their learning centers. When I walked into both classrooms, I saw a direct connection between the goal of the program and the teachers’ instruction; students were actively engaged in different activities that were helping them learn letters, sounds, and words. In addition, their data supported the results that will help students be successful in reading for a lifetime.

BES’s data shows that 87 percent of Benton’s pre-K students scored 70 or higher on an early literacy exam, while less than 25 percent of students who did not attend pre-K scored 70 or higher.

Career and technical education connects students to postsecondary


Students show Commissioner McQueen the pulley system they built at PCHS

My next stop was a short drive up the road to Polk County High School (PCHS), a 2014-15 Reward School for academic progress. This year, due to a new partnership with the Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) in Athens, PCHS was able to expand its course offerings and bring in educators from the TCAT to teach new and enriching courses. PCHS administrators explained that they were very deliberate in this expansion, ensuring the classes they offered aligned with local workforce needs.

While I was in the building, I saw one of these classes in action.  I was introduced to students in a new mechatronics class and saw them work collaboratively to build a pulley system. The ability of PCHS to give students hands-on experiences was exciting and will help give their students an advantage after high school graduation.

Hands-on experience connects students to different cultures


Students from Whitwell Middle greet Commissioner McQueen

My last stop of the day was to Whitwell Middle School in Marion County. Here I learned about an ongoing, student-led project to educate the community about the Holocaust. This project began in 1998, when students were learning about those who were killed during World War II.  The students requested to collect something to help them grasp the enormity of the lives that were taken. The principal agreed, and students began collecting paperclips as a representation of each lost life. Paperclips were chosen because they were used to protest the Nazi occupation in Norway and to symbolize the country’s binding unity.


German transport car that holds the paper clips at Whitwell Middle

Today, Whitwell has received over 30 million paperclips, 11 million of which are displayed in a German transport car on the front lawn that honor lives lost. They have also received over 30,000 letters, documents, books, and artifacts which they proudly display in the Children’s Holocaust Memorial Research Room located within their school.

Over the years, as this project has grown and transformed, it has continually taught students about tolerance, respect, and perseverance. The importance of valuing diversity has become a part of the school’s identity and culture, and this mindset will serve students well as they move forward in life.


I am grateful to all of the educators who allowed me to visit their schools and classrooms as part of my 10,000 teacher tour.  I especially want to thank Sen. Mike Bell and Rep. Dan Howell, for taking time to experience the exciting and inspirational work being done in classrooms across our state. Follow more of my travels here on Classroom Chronicles as my tour continues throughout the fall.