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Sequatchie among top school systems statewide for student progress
Karen House
Aug. 18, 2018, 11:34 a.m.

Sequatchie County High School has seen an increase in the graduation rate since the school system focused on the twin factors of attendance and early literacy.

Aug. 18, 2018 – Statistics released this week by the Tennessee Department of Education (DOE) place Sequatchie County Schools at the top of the state with regard to student “growth” – whether a child is progressing academically at a rate that is expected, or above or below that expectation.

Sequatchie County Schools were ranked “5” on a scale of 1 to 5, and was one of just 11 Tennessee school systems, out of 147, to do so.

This is great news,” Sequatchie County Director of Schools Pete Swafford said Friday. “It shows we are one of the fastest improving school systems in the state of Tennessee. And the state of Tennessee is one of the fastest improving states in the nation. That says something good about us.”

The TVAAS (Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System) is a ranking drawn from the annual standardized tests administered in the public schools – TNReady in grades 3-8 and an End Of Course (EOC) test at the high school level.

It evaluates student progress in four categories: English, math, social studies, and science. A base level is taken at the third grade and, based on the average of all students, an estimate is made as to how that student will perform on the test in fourth grade. Each year as the student is tested, the expectation of how the student will perform the next year is adjusted.

The further along they go, the more accurately they plot where that child is going to be,” Swafford said. “If you meet that trajectory, you're a 3. If you exceed it, you're a 4. If you exceed it by two grade levels, you're a 5.”

The same is the case if a child falls below expectations, reflected in a score of 1 or 2.

While this is the third year in a row the Sequatchie County School System scored a “5” composite score on the TVAAS scale, it is the first time the system has received a “5” score in every one of the four categories.

Additionally, we were named the eighth fastest improving school system in the state in grades 3-5 in English-language arts,” Swafford said. “Also, fifth fastest improving in the 3-5 grades for math.”

Some of the changes in the local school system that have produced such superlative results were the result of the school board, the staff, and the faculty evaluating what works and what doesn't.

We took a comprehensive look at how we're spending our time in elementary school,” Swafford explained. “We revamped the schedule to give large blocks of time to language arts and math – at least 90 minutes of language in the morning and in most cases 90 minutes of math in the morning. We put a heavy emphasis on early literacy.”

When local school officials looked at what caused students to quit school without graduating, they realized the ones that dropped out had attendance issues in middle school. And the ones with attendance issues at middle school had fallen behind on reading in elementary school.

One factor more than any other factor has an impact on graduation, and that's middle school attendance,” Swafford noted. “If you feel a lot better about yourself because you can read, you get in trouble less and want to come to school.”

To improve graduation rates, the school system focused on attacking the root of the problem at the kindergarten level. Kindergarten teachers have been encouraged to have their students reading proficiently when they leave kindergarten, and by monitoring what books at what levels the kids are checking out of the library, they can address any deficiencies from the start.

Other steps to improve student attendance included giving “tickets” to kids that do something good in school that can be redeemed at a special event later, and the “HUG” program at Griffith Elementary School.

HUG stands for Hello, Update, and Goodbye,” Swafford explained. “Every adult in the school has a child that they greet in the morning. They say, 'Hello! Good to see you this morning.' Then they update during the day, asking how the student's day is going. Then in the afternoon they say goodbye and tell them, 'See you tomorrow!'”

Simply knowing someone is looking forward to seeing them there will be the encouragement a lot of students need to come to school.

And it's not just the teachers,” Swafford said. “It's faculty, administration, staff, it might be a janitor. Everybody's on board with this.”

And when asked if the efforts of the school system have had an impact on Sequatchie County's graduation rate, Swafford pauses with a grin.

We have had a very significant increase in the graduation rate,” he said. “In 2015 it was 77%, in 2016 82%, in 2017 it was 86%, and last year – 2018 – we graduated 92%.”

Making the lower grades a welcoming place for children, and making sure they can read, has increased attendance.