By Jared Felkins

The state Department of Education named 10 local schools, seven in Wilson County Schools and three Lebanon Special School District schools, as Reward schools, which is the highest honor given annually to individual schools.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Friday the 2018 Reward and Priority schools, which are two key designations under Tennessee’s school accountability system. It was the first year Tennessee implemented its new school accountability model, which was developed with educators and stakeholders across the state and which looks at multiple measures of success.  

Wilson County schools named Reward schools were Mt. Juliet High School, Watertown High School, West Wilson Middle School, Elzie D. Patton Elementary School, Stoner Creek Elementary School, West Elementary School and W.A. Wright Elementary School. No Wilson County schools were named priority schools. 

“By any standard, the start of this school year has been exceptional,” said Wilson County Director of Schools Donna Wright. “Last month, we learned that the district has now achieved a Level 5 status for the academic growth of our students. Nine of our schools – almost half – received the highest ranking possible. Today, we’ve learned that seven of our schools have also achieved Reward School status. I can’t say enough about the hard work and dedication that’s been exerted by our students, teachers and administrators.”

For the second year in a row, the Lebanon Special School District earned exemplary status, which indicated the district exceeded state growth expectations in all indicators. Half of Lebanon schools achieved Reward status. Byars Dowdy Elementary School, Sam Houston Elementary School and Walter J. Baird Middle School were named Reward schools. No Lebanon schools were named Priority schools.

“Our administrators, teachers and students across the system work so hard,” said Lebanon Director of Schools Scott Benson. “It is a major accomplishment to have half of the schools in the system recognized by the Tennessee Department of Education as Reward schools and for the system overall to be classified as exemplary for the second year in a row. We were celebrating our Level 5 status when the additional accolades were announced. I am extremely proud of everyone involved. We will continue to focus on areas of improvement and, at the same time, celebrate success with our students and teachers.” 

Reward schools improved overall student academic achievement and student growth for all students and for student groups, and they are identified annually. In 2018, 318 schools in 85 school districts – about 20 percent of schools in the state – earned Reward status.  

Priority schools are identified at least every three years, and they are schools most in need of support and improvement. Priority schools fall into the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state test scores in the past three years and have low graduation rates. Following legislation passed last spring, 2017-18 TNReady data was not used to identify Priority schools. The 2018 Priority list included 82 schools across eight districts, and these schools will be eligible for additional funding and will be supported by the department, in coordination with their districts, to develop a plan to improve.  

“In this first year with our new system, it is incredibly encouraging to see more than 300 of our schools are earning Reward status for how they are supporting our students’ academic achievement and growth,” McQueen said. “At the same time, we see a number of places where we need to improve. Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our Priority schools, and we will be working closely with these schools and their districts over the coming year to improve academic outcomes and strengthen whole-child services that support student success.”    

Tennessee’s new school accountability system was developed through a 16-month process of gathering feedback and hearing input from students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members. Tennessee has designated Reward and Priority schools since 2012, but this was the first year with an updated methodology as required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. As part of federal requirements, the plan was submitted to and approved by the U.S. Department of Education.  

The new accountability framework is based on principles that all schools can be successful and all Tennessee students must be served well. It includes a variety of measures, including chronic absenteeism and discipline, ACT performance, and TNReady scores, to make a determination. All schools are rated both on how they serve the full student population and how they are specifically serving student groups that have historically been underserved: students with disabilities, English learners, economically disadvantaged students, and black, Hispanic, and Native American students. This fall, the department will publish more information about how all schools perform on these measures as part of a new school dashboard that will be posted online to offer additional information to parents, educators, elected officials, and community leaders.  

As part of Tennessee’s new accountability plan, all Priority schools will move into an evidence-based school improvement model, ranging from district-led plans to intervention by the state’s Achievement School District. To better support Tennessee’s lowest performing schools, the state has invested $20 million into school improvement over the last two years. This funding is specifically devoted for Priority schools.