By MARINA WATERS
The results are in: Washington County is now home to an exemplary school district.
The school system received this honor after earning an “exemplary” score in achievement, gap closure and final determination from the state.
The Tennessee Department of Education describes an exemplary district as a school system that is “exceeding the growth expectation on average for both all students and each historically underserved student group.”
“Districts that have a final determination of exemplary, what we’re doing is raising the ceiling but also raising the floor. That’s what’s meant by the gap closure,” Washington County Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton told the Herald & Tribune. “You could raise all students’ achievement levels. But you could be leaving your subgroups behind. So your average and above average students could be doing very well, but if your subgroups aren’t also climbing, you’re not going to get an exemplary in gap closure.”
The school district also placed third in the Northeast or “first” Tennessee region and third out of the state’s 95 county systems in English and Language Arts for grades 3-8. Washington County also placed first in the region and seventh in county systems in math for grades 3-8.
These rankings are for students who are considered “on-track” or have “mastered” their grade-level content. The county system ranks above city systems such as Greenville, Bristol and Kingsport in ELA and math for this category of students, which Halliburton said should change the perception of a county school district.
“What I would say (to no better time to be a part of Washington County Schools,” Halliburton said. “Our trajectory is upward mobility. We’re making progress and significant progress. We have excellent achievement and excellent growth. So if we continue along that path — and I have every belief that we will given who our teachers are along with our students and our parents — the sky’s the limit for Washington County.”
Halliburton credits Washington County teachers and each department within the school system, from food services to custodians and bus drivers, as a contributing factor to the results.
But more specifically, Halliburton said she believes the system’s focus on increasing classroom rigor and rigorous tasks for each student has helped up the scores, such as the TNReady results and the good news the county received regarding Tennessee Value Added Assessment results.
“It requires a lot of work from our teachers because they have to be very prescriptive and they have to constantly self-reflect on ‘Is this challenging enough for this given student?’ and readjusting it if it’s not,” she said. “The thing about academic rigor that makes it so difficult is that you want it to be challenging to a point that a student feels slight discomfort with it, but could still manage to work through it independently. That’s difficult because where is that saturation point for each student?”
Though the results place the school district above other counties and some city systems in the region, the director said she’s ready to keep Washington County on the upward trend by striving for even better results.
“This is excellent, but we aren’t totally satisfied with it because that means about 57 percent of our kids we still need to identify — nor should these other two city systems be satisfied,” Halliburton said. “None of us in ELA are at the 50 percent mark. What makes this more challenging is, the better you get, the more the state elevates the expectations. So next year’s expectations are going to be about 4-5 percent higher than this.
“You’ve upped your game and now you have to up your game even more.”
Third through eighth graders aren’t the only students Halliburton is celebrating; for English, Washington County’s high schools are ranked first in the region’s county systems, seventh in county systems throughout Tennessee and 20th in the state overall. In high school math, the district ranked first in the region for county systems, fourth in county systems throughout Tennessee, and 16th in the state overall.
Halliburton said though the county’s high school English scores were good results, she’s hoping to improve literacy growth scores.
“We’ve got work to do because what I’d like for us to be in about five to 10 years from now is ranked in the top five school districts in terms of achievement and growth,” Halliburton said. “How that happens over time is making sure that in our K-8 world, that those kids are reading on grade level so that when they go to high school they are caught up.”
To keep with the upward-moving growth and achievement scores in the county, the director of schools said she wants to encourage parents and guardians to work with youngsters on recognizing letters and sounds associated with each of those — whether that be in the car, with refrigerator magnets in the kitchen, or through labeling items throughout a household.
But at the top of that list is helping students increase his or her attendance.
“The number one way parents can help us is to make sure that their student reports to school every day on time and you minimize the amount that you pull them out early for a doctor’s appointment,” she said. “You can’t predict what the teacher will present that day. What they present on that given day that your child is out of school could be critical.”
Apart from increasing reading scores, and hoping attendance increases, the director’s hope is that a new perception is seen in regards to the county school system.
“Washington County Schools is the best kept secret in this region. It’s the best-kept secret because the reality is much better than the perception. So we’ve got some work to do with changing the culture with this county school system.
“We are not the underdog. We’re a system that people need to take note of. We’re a system that, given these results and the results we are going to be getting in the future, other systems are going to be looking at saying, ‘What are they doing differently?’ That’s already happening.”