Those were among the things highlighted during the county Board of Education’s retreat held Friday at the Eastman Employee Center, marking the first retreat the system has held in two years and the first since Evelyn Rafalowski took over as director of schools in June of 2015.
Before the retreat, the board held a called meeting, during which officials pored over the compiled results of the BOE’s annual self-evaluation and heard reports on special education, technology and safety, student services, federal projects and professional development, elementary curriculum and instruction and secondary curriculum.
The board ran out of time before all scheduled presentations could be made, but it will hear about budgets, maintenance and facilities, school nutrition and human resources during regular work sessions before the end of the year, Rafalowski said. She added that the central office staff does a lot and recalled that when she joined its ranks in 1999, the leadership team consisted of 17 people, but that number has fallen to 10. She also thanked the school board for its questions about the presentations.
Angie Buckles, who oversees special education for the system, said 19.8 percent (or 1,989) of the system’s roughly 10,000 students this fall are in special education, including those receiving speech services. Of those, about 160 ride special education buses owned and operated by the county. Nineteen drivers and three substitutes operate 19 buses, supported by three bus attendants and a mechanic. In addition, 65 teachers and 92 aides serve special ed students.
The board didn’t get to compile proposed action items as planned, but members indicated they might seek a change in state law because currently any students who get a special education or occupational diploma are counted as dropouts. Special education students can remain in the system until age 22 unless they receive a regular diploma beforehand. Also, any student who doesn’t earn a regular diploma in four years and a summer is counted as a dropout by the state.
“That’s just so sad. It’s terrible,” BOE member Mark Ireson said. The board also discussed requesting a state change in how graduation rates are calculated and seeking state funding for AP tests.
Student services supervisor Andy Hare, who oversees attendance, discipline, transportation and athletics, said he spends a lot of time working on truancy and absentees, working through truancy councils in Kingsport and Bristol that eventually feed students into juvenile court if they continue missing school. Attendance is usually 94 percent systemwide. He also recounted the EPIC! (Encourage, Protect, Invest and Connect) program that rewards good behavior.
Hare said he oversees about 110 registered, independent homeschooled students with no state funding, saying his secretary spends about 110 hours a year on required paperwork for them. He suggested that the board seek legislative approval for state funding to cover such work.
He and BOE member Matthew Spivey, an attorney, said some parents of truant students in juvenile court will shift students to homeschooling to avoid truancy, although he said the parents are supposed to report the attendance of homeschooled children.
In addition, Hare said that students in two Frontier Health-operated residential facilities for troubled youth — Crossing Point, where students are technically enrolled in Sullivan East, and Sullivan House, where they are enrolled in Sullivan Central — are counted as East or Central dropouts if they do not return to their home school when the court releases them.
For 2015-16, the graduation rate for Sullivan South was 99.12 percent; North, 96.67 percent; Central, 94.26 percent; and East, 89 percent, with the district as a whole at 94.69 percent compared to 88.5 percent statewide.
Hare said that negatively and artificially affects East and Central graduation rates and ACT scores, and BOE member Randall Jones said Sullivan House students a few year ago bumped Central into a larger athletic classification, even though the Sullivan House and Crossing Point students rarely are eligible to play sports for their respective schools. Alternative schools include a 6-12 facility at Bluff City Middle, a 9-12 one at Central for Central, North and South students and a zero-tolerance one at North.
After a presentation by Bo Shadden, supervisor of secondary education, board members also discussed asking the state to fund the cost of about $70 for students to take AP tests after they take an AP class. A score of 3 or higher on a scale of 1 to 5 means college credit at most schools. Rafalowski pointed out the state is already paying this year for seniors to retake the ACT if they took if for free as juniors, and Shadden said he uses federal Carl Perkins money to pay for students to take career technical education certification tests.
Technology supervisor Karen Nave, who is also in charge of safety and communications, said new camera systems funded by Safe Schools grants are at all four high schools, Emmett Elementary, Holston Elementary and Middle and are awaiting online connections at Blountville Elementary. The cameras provide real-time video images of various areas of the schools and would give law enforcement a look at intruders and principals a way to check on allegations of bullying and harassment.
She also reported that devices supported by her department numbered 12,799, including 4,044 iPads, 4,435 MacBooks and 2,500 laptops and desktops. She said to get a 1:1 ratio of students to wireless devices would require updating infrastructure, increased filtering capacity, continuing education for teachers, more technology support staff and, finally, buying the devices, likely MacBooks.