After visiting classrooms in 30 school districts across the state, talking regularly with superintendents and other stakeholders, and reviewing more than 25,000 comments from teachers, Tennessee’s new education commissioner says one theme keeps emerging: the need to support the mental health needs of students.
“Without question, it’s the No. 1 piece of feedback I heard from every single group,” Penny Schwinn told Chalkbeat this week. “There is a growing concern about how we can support our children, not only academically but also behaviorally.”
Student mental health — an issue that has received a lot of lip service in Tennessee in recent years, but little in the way of funding — is one of 12 priorities identified in the state education department’s proposed five-year strategic plan, released Friday.
“We have an increasing number of children living in predominantly low-income communities and also coming from environments of addiction or abuse. We’re seeing upticks in suicide rates and bullying behaviors,” Schwinn said.
The commissioner unveiled the first draft of what she calls a “roadmap for the future,” after conferring this week with superintendents during regional gatherings in East and Middle Tennessee. She’ll meet with district leaders in West Tennessee later this month.
Schwinn also is inviting all Tennesseans to offer their input via an online survey that ends on June 21. “The voices of our students, our educators, and our superintendents are throughout this document, and we want even more feedback,” she said.
The final strategic plan is scheduled to be released in late July.
In addition to mental health, the proposed version lays out other priorities, including strengthening the state’s pipeline of teachers, developing and retaining school leaders, defining pathways to give students opportunities after graduating from high school, supporting rural schools, engaging with families, and STEAM education, which stands for science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math.
When Schwinn left Texas in January to become Tennessee’s new education chief, she promised to “listen and learn” as she kicked off her tenure by touring three schools — one rural, one urban, and one suburban — on her very first day.
She’s since visited more than 175 classrooms statewide and says it’s important that the state’s next strategic plan is rooted in ground-level conversations in school communities, not top-down edicts from her department.
“Commissioner Schwinn has been very open and willing to listen in developing this proposal,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents group. “Right now, I’d give her two thumbs up.”
In a conference call with reporters on Friday, Schwinn identified classrooms, educators, schools, and community as the four main pillars that will set the plan’s parameters. Girding those are academic standards, testing, accountability, and teacher evaluations — four policy strategies that grew out of Tennessee’s overhaul of K-12 education as part of its federal Race to the Top award in 2010.
Those four policies — all of which have generated controversy at one time or another — are “foundational,” Schwinn told reporters, calling them “not something that’s up for discussion.”
But other strategies and needs are on the table.
For school improvement work, the draft calls for “restructuring school turnaround so that there is more shared ownership between the state and local districts.” That suggests that Tennessee could choose to rely less on the state-run Achievement School District — its most intensive model in which the state has taken over low-performing schools in Memphis and Nashville and converted them to charter schools — and more on “Partnership Zones,” a collaborative state-district approach that just finished its first year in Chattanooga.
The draft also suggests that rural schools will get more attention under the administration of Gov. Bill Lee, a farmer and businessman who attended public schools in rural Williamson County and has pledged to make additional investments in the state’s more remote areas.
“We have to take a really strong position around how we support educators in those communities,” Schwinn said.
READ: Rural schools overlooked amid Tennessee’s rural focus group, says equity group
The need to beef up student mental health services has been a topic of conversation in Tennessee, especially since 2018 when one former student’s shooting spree killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida. In response, then-Gov. Bill Haslam convened a task force on school safety and urged local districts to explore ways to step up support for students’ emotional needs. However, most of the $25 million in extra funding approved by legislators that year went to improving school security, including upgrades to door locks, entryways, and screening equipment.
More than a year later, Schwinn said it’s becoming more apparent that — whether it’s called mental health or the “whole child” approach — schools need to do more to help their students feel healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged in order to achieve long-term success.
She recounted a powerful conversation with one student in Robertson County, north of Nashville, who told her: “What I need in my school is to have a buddy to eat lunch with in the cafeteria every day and an adult I can go to when I have a problem. Those would make all the difference.”
“Too many of our kids can’t say they have both of those things, and that’s something we have to take seriously,” Schwinn said. “We’ve got to find ways to better support them as they develop as people.”
Below, you can read the first draft of the strategic plan:
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