By MARINA WATERS
The new Boones Creek and Jonesborough schools have popped up during almost every conversation with the Washington County Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton. But when she sat down to talk to the Herald & Tribune about her goals for 2017, construction wasn’t the only thing on her mind.
Halliburton recently had three main goals from her Washington Way plan approved by the Health Education and Welfare Committee; she got the go-ahead on purchasing the McCoy property for the Jonesborough School, design work for the Jonesborough School and turning the existing middle school into a lottery magnet school, and a delay on roof updates at both of the current Jonesborough schools in order to reallocate funding for audio enhancements in grades K-5. But for her, her first goal is setting groundwork for students—and that starts with reading.
With Halliburton’s plan all K-5 classrooms (excluding the round, open classrooms) would be equipped with audio. The younger the student is, the more likely he or she is to have temporary hearing loss Halliburton said. She also said that because a student phonetically learns to read in K-2, audio is important in terms of helping students become proficient readers.
“If you can’t read by third grade, you have a whole lot of catching up to do and you’re more likely to be a dropout,” the director of schools explained. “And that’s just not acceptable for us in Washington County. That’s why I think you begin with the audio as soon as you possibly can. If you don’t master those phonics, you don’t become a proficient reader. That’s why we’re starting there and building up.”
Graduation rates were also high on Halliburton’s list of new year priorities; the Washington County graduation rate for the previous year was 90.2 percent, which is four percent lower than Sullivan County. Though Halliburton said Washington County’s graduation is great compared to the state percentage, she also said she thinks the school system can do better.
The graduation rate could be aided in Washington County with the implementation of Halliburton’s CTE school goal as part of the Washington Way. The director of schools said the Tennessee Virtual Academy, which is a totally online program, has added five students since Thanksgiving.
Graduation rates aren’t at 100 percent just because of educational gaps; Halliburton discussed with the Herald & Tribune what growing up through the school system in this technological world is like for today’s students.
“I don’t know that I’d wanna go back to high school today. The reason it’s so tough being in high school or even middle school is social media,” Halliburton said. “Back when I grew up, there were no computers. You found out in lunch or that first period on Monday that you were excluded from a party. Today growing up, you find out in the moment that there’s a party going on. You find out instantly that there’s a party going on and you weren’t included. Not only that, but you can relive that over and over again because the pictures don’t disappear.”
“That (online academy) could save a life if you’ve got a kid struggling with some depression. It’s really just about the students. What’s going to benefit them the most and help them really get an advanced step in going to college and being career ready.”
In addition to growing graduation rates, math scores and eventually working on vocational sites, Halliburton is also aiming to continue professional development for teachers, principals, central office staff, board members and even the director of schools herself. Through organizations like Belmont University, Halliburton is hoping to incorporate a new vision into the school system’s organizational approach.
“When I arrived here and I saw the vision and the mission statement hanging in the board room, I just asked ‘how did that come about?’” Halliburton said. “What I was told was the directors here, they crafted the vision and mission statement. Well, what I want Belmont to work with the board and I on are our beliefs as a group. Because the leadership of this district is in the school board and in the director of schools and it trickles down. Those belief systems, out of that, he’ll work with this on what are our beliefs on teaching and learning. We’ll craft those and then from there we’ll come up with a vision and mission statement and he’ll tell us how to vet that to the community.”
Though the director of schools discusses new schools, vocational options and professional development topics numerous times throughout her work, she said it’s the student for which she is considering these updates that keep her work and the heart of what she does in balance.
“I would not be happy in this job if we were just talking facilitaties and construction and getting more money if I didn’t have that personal connect with students,” Halliburton said. “The best way for me to remind myself of what I’m all about is to get into the schools. And I think Central Office people, any supervisors that are housed over here, myself—we have to keep getting into schools as a reminder. I think that’s why it’s good for the children to come perform in front of the board. We all need that reminder. To start the meeting that way, it’s like, ‘okay what we vote on today will have a direct impact on our boys and girls. If you think about it, our students are our customers.
“The heart of it is, it’s their future.”