By Ron Barry
“Once she sets a foot in a classroom, it takes an army of us to drag her out.”
That’s how the State of Tennessee Department of Education Director of Communications Victoria Robinson describes trying to keep her boss, Education Commissioner Dr. Penny Schwinn, on schedule when the department has scheduled six separate school visits on the same day.
“It’s virtually impossible,” Robinson laughed while watching Schwinn from the doorway of a classroom last week at Alamo City School, one of 50 locations a statewide bus tour will hit over a three-week span designated as the Accelerating TN 2022 Tour. The whirlwind journey is set to run through June 15, with Schwinn checking in on an average of six districts a day.
Last Wednesday, Schwinn made a strop in Alamo to check out the ACS Summer Learning Program, following earlier stops that day at a Dyer County school and a Dyersburg city school. The bus was supposed to be in Alamo by 10:15 that morning; it was closer to 10:35 when the commissioner and her entourage stepped from the vehicle.
After a quick greeting from some local school officials, including board member Jordan Spraggins and ACS principal Kelsie Henning, Schwinn headed into the classroom of first-grade teacher Brandi Wilson and immediately immersed herself in that morning’s lesson. Robinson, smiling, started shaking her head. “Uh-oh,” she laughed, “we’ve lost her now!”
Robinson explained that Schwinn, who is a child of educator parents and then was a classroom teacher herself for a while, absolutely loves these types of moments.
“She’s not your typical administrator,” Robinson said. “There is nowhere she would rather be than in a classroom. She loves talking to teachers, joining in on lessons with students, and seeing first-hand what is actually going on in Tennessee schools. It’s a great thing, and it’s beneficial to our mission to educate Tennessee students. But it makes it really hard to stay on time with this ambitious of a schedule.”
On that Wednesday alone – after Alamo being stop Number 3 for the morning – Schwinn and her crew still had to go to Haywood County and then the Special School Districts of both Gibson County and the City of Trenton. The next day, she was scheduled to visit the Tennessee School for the Blind, Manchester City Schools, Tullahoma City Schools and Bedford County Schools. Friday was to see her in Houston County Schools, Paris Special School District, Hollow Rock-Bruceton Special School District, Henderson County Schools, and Humphreys County Schools.
This week she’s mostly in the Upper Cumberland area and in East Tennessee. Next week she’ll swing back into West Tennessee, hitting the areas of Bartlett, Arlington, Collierville, and Lakeland before reaching Jackson-Madison County, Lexington, Hardin County, Clarksville, Murfreesboro, and Dickson County.
The Accelerating TN 2022 Tour is highlighting summer learning opportunities, giving the various communities visited the opportunity to learn more about how schools are accelerating student achievement. The department says that Tennessee “continues to lead the nation in supporting students, prioritizing education policies and initiatives to combat learning loss due to the national pandemic, and ensuring our children are set up for success.”
During the General Assembly’s 2021 special legislative session on education, legislators passed the Tennessee Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act, which set forward a path for all districts’ current and future summer programming opportunities to benefit students and accelerate achievement.
This year, the General Assembly passed the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) Act, which updates the way the state funds public education for the first time in over 30 years and prioritizes the needs of each individual student. Next week’s The Crockett County Times will take an in-depth look at the TISA funding formula and how it should affect schools within Crockett County and its towns.
To highlight these important policies and programs to support students, Schwinn, department staff, state and local elected officials, and community partners are visiting 50 of Tennessee’s school districts this summer to connect directly with students, educators, and stakeholders. Additionally, on numerous visits, the commissioner and guests will partake in district leadership roundtables discussing strategic initiatives accelerating student achievement and the new TISA public school funding formula as well as events highlighting state, regional, or district work.
“Tennessee students deserve every opportunity to grow, learn and achieve,” Schwinn said. “Our elected officials have made clear their commitment to the success of our children and the success of our state by approving the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement, bringing $1 billion in new, recurring dollars for Tennessee’s students, the largest recurring investment for public education in our state’s history.”
In the fall of 2021, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Commissioner Schwinn invited Tennesseans to participate in the full review of the state’s education funding formula and explore possibilities for a more student-centered approach.
Public engagement focused on a student investment strategy that would prioritize students over systems, empower parents to engage in their child’s education, incentivize student outcomes, ensure all students – regardless of location or learning needs – are served at a high-level, reflect Tennesseans’ values, and create flexible funding that prepare students for postsecondary success.
The Tennessee Department of Education and the General Assembly convened 18 funding subcommittees, organized a legislative steering committee, and provided over 1,000 opportunities for the public to engage, including 16 public town halls and local match conversations across the state.