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VOL. 126 | NO. 236 | Monday, December 5, 2011

Huffman: County's Education Faces Exciting Oppty.

By Bill Dries

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Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman told the group fashioning the plan to consolidate Shelby County’s two public school systems by the late summer of 2013 that the state wants to help.

The session with the schools consolidation planning commission last week was the first since the group started its work in October. Huffman used the phrase “unique opportunity” numerous times. He told the group it has a chance to create a new school system that he hopes will be formed around the concept of schools that work for every parent of every child, with “not what’s best for the systems that have previously existed – not what’s best for politics or for optics – but what is best for kids.”

Huffman, who was appointed state commissioner earlier this year, also talked in specific terms about the “achievement gap” among students and among school systems.

He termed the gap in Tennessee schools “pervasive” and discounted linking the gap to the number of poor students a school or school system has. Public education’s measuring stick for poverty is the number of students who receive assistance for free or reduced lunches. Based on that and performance test scores of those students, Huffman said Tennessee’s poor students are being outperformed by poor students in other states.

“Poor kids in Tennessee are a whole year behind poor kids in Kentucky – behind poor kids in North Carolina. When people want to say that it is poverty that is causing the results that we’re getting in Tennessee, I would say why is it that poor kids in Kentucky and poor kids in North Carolina are able to perform at a much higher level?” Huffman said. “I have to believe that it’s because we need to construct a stronger education system top to bottom.”

The same planning commission has heard from Memphis City Schools Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash that its plan for a consolidated school system should take into account reform measures he’s undertaken that are built around specific demographics of the Memphis schools including poverty. Other demographics Cash has made a priority and aimed his reforms at include the number of overage students at certain grade levels, those who move multiple times during a school year, those who are not enrolled in pre-kindergarten and children who have no access to primary health care.

The two school boards were merged in October with seven new appointed board members added to the body.

Any consolidation plan from the planning commission goes to state education officials and the countywide school board for approval.

Huffman told the planning commission that his office has “limited statutory authority in terms of prescribing what happens in that plan.” But Huffman said he wants to assist and work with the planning commission as it moves toward an August deadline to complete the plan.

“It’s obviously your work. But this is the largest district in the state of Tennessee,” he added. “This work is of the utmost importance to us. We want to be helpful to you.”

The commission is still hearing from other school systems, looking at individual schools in both school systems that perform well and generally getting itself organized.

Huffman said he hopes the result isn’t “simply structurally a larger school system but where the quality of education does not improve.”

“I believe that if at the end of this all that we have done is affected a financial merger of two systems – I think this will be a missed opportunity,” he said. “We think there is a chance with this merger to create the kind of central office with less bureaucracy and more orientation toward higher performance that will be a better central office – something parents will feel is more responsive to their needs.”

Huffman was quick to add that he wasn’t slighting or criticizing the front office of either school system.

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