XDan Eldridge photo

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

mwaters@heraldandtribune.com

Talk of the town may be Washington County’s proposed new Boones Creek and Jonesborough schools, but at the Health Education and Welfare Committee meeting on March 2, the focus was on the learning going on inside currently existing Washington County Schools — specifically reading proficiency.

Washington County Director of Schools, Kimber Halliburton, recently reported to the HEW committee and the school board that reading proficiency in Washington County for grades K-3 is at 55 percent—a number Halliburton said she aims to increase to 75 percent.

This sparked the committee’s conversation about programs from organizations like Niswonger Foundation that could lend a hand with this goal. Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said Niswonger has been expanding into other counties and is an option. He also said Coalition for Kids, which currently serves the Johnson City School System, is initiating services in Washington County.

“Coalition has been remarkably affective in improving the reading levels of the kids that come into their after-school program. The numbers speak for themselves,” Eldridge said. “They are very, very interested in expanding that program into the county schools.”

Eldridge also said that such programs could be costly, but that resources are making themselves available and would pay for the majority of the cost outside of what is available through the county’s school-funding budget. But the gains as a result of these programs could be what Washington County needs to achieve a 75 percent reading-proficiency goal.

“I think that the opportunity for some significant improvement in student outcomes is going to be very real,” Eldridge said. “And it’s going to be based on some historical successes that they (Coalition for Kids) have had with the very same program they have in Johnson City.

“We’ve got several very specific opportunities lined up that I think over the next year and a half will be able to come together and be able to make a real difference in this number.”

Eldridge told the HEW committee he’d also like to see commissioners identify specific areas that could be impacted, like technology—an area the commission recently funded through the audio enhancement systems set to be installed in all K-5 classrooms excluding the round portion of Jonesborough Elementary School. During the commission’s Feb. 27 meeting, a Washington County student showed the commission how the enhancements, which are meant to help elementary-age students who could have hearing loss due to illness or allergies, work. The technology is used to improve a student’s ability to hear instructions, thus improving reading scores.

The teachers present during the audio enhancement presentation at the commission meeting also mentioned an renewed student-interest in reading due to the use of the microphone.

For county commissioner and HEW committee chairwoman Katie Baker, identifying the specific focus to improve the rate is of importance. During the BOE and HEW joint meeting, Halliburton presented a comparison of every elementary school in the district and their scores in each school subject. This brought about an interest from the commission in specifying which areas—and possibly which schools—need the most aid.

“We saw it from two different angles the other night,” Baker explained. “We saw school-specific performance. Are there schools in the system that need more resources to improve their scores or are we looking towards specific subjects like English language arts where we need to infuse resources?

“And it may be a little bit of both.”

In order to know what area to aid first, Eldridge said he felt the commission, with help from the school system, needed to concentrate on data.

“I think we need to become much more data-driven. It’s obvious that the school system has the ability to collect data,” Eldridge explained.

“If we could ever figure out among ourselves, working in collaboration with the school system, how to use that data and actually provide real indicators of progress as a result of these investments, I think that’s how we ultimately get to where the school system wants to be—where a lot of us want to be.”