Tenn. School Board Dissastified with Status Quo

By Glenn Cook

The leadership of Tennessee’s Hamblen County School District is experienced and stable. Collectively, the seven-member board has served more than 110 years, and the superintendent has been in place for more than a decade.

But that stability and experience doesn’t mean the district’s leadership team is satisfied with the status quo --  far from it, in fact. Given the economic challenges and ongoing population changes this 9,750-student district is facing, forward thinking and assertive leadership are necessary constants in managing Hamblen’s 18 schools.

“We realized we could get on board and ride together into the future, or get run over by it,” says Chairman Joe Gibson Jr. “We just try to embrace what’s out there and not give excuses about why we can’t do something. We focus on how we can.”

Located in Northeastern Tennessee, Hamblen County has moved away from the furniture industry that once was its trademark and is trying to draw more high-tech companies to boost its economy. At the same time, the district’s number of students on free and reduced-price lunch has grown by 14 percent over the past decade, and the percentage of English Language Learners (ELLs) has risen from 1 percent to 10 percent.

Hamblen County ranks 122nd among the state’s 136 districts in terms of per-pupil spending, a challenge as Tennessee pilots the implementation of the Common Core standards. But by aggressively pursuing grants, emphasizing the use of technology, and increasing the rigor of the high school curriculum, the district has found ways to meet student needs.

“Since the Common Core Standards have been in place, it’s unbelievable how teachers, administrators, and support staff have responded,” says Roger Greene, a board member for 27 years. “Many come in early in the morning before school starts, and they stay several hours after the bell rings to provide tutoring and extra attention to the students. And they do this without us providing additional compensation to them. … They really have stepped it up.”

The effort is paying off. Last fall, the district was honored by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) for the most dramatically improved student achievement. The board received the Tennessee School Boards Association’s (TSBA) top honor. Three schools received the National Blue Ribbon Award, and Dale Lynch was named the national Tech-Savvy Superintendent of the Year.

“As a county, we’re struggling,” says Lynch, who was named superintendent in 2001. “As a school district, that’s been a big challenge for us, but we haven’t used it as a barrier. We don’t say, ‘We can’t do this,’ or ‘We can’t raise the bar for all students.’ We focus on the strategies that we need to put in place to make sure every student has a chance to be successful.”

Dealing with changing demographics

At the board level, those strategies include annual retreats that focus on “where we are and where we want to be,” says board member Carolyn Holt. And a large part of the discussion revolves around the county’s changing demographics.

“We know in our district that we have a large and growing percentage of ELL students, and we know that could impact our overall achievement,” Holt says. “That’s how the English Language Learning center came about, because we knew that was an area we were going to have to address.”

The International Center, as it is known, opened in 2003-04 amid controversy. The board and Lynch worked with local business and industry as well as the chamber of commerce, city and county leaders, and the Niswonger Foundation to raise money for renovating a site and staffing the program. Today, any Hamblen County child who comes to a U.S. school for the first time spends half a day at the school.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is that our community was not accepting of a changing demographic subgroup in our community, much less the school system, and we changed their attitude,” Lynch says. “We were very, very proactive in talking about just how hard it is for all kids who have a language barrier to succeed. It wasn’t whether their parents were here legally or illegally: The kids will be here, and it is the humane and moral thing for us to provide a quality education for every child in Hamblen County.”

Hamblen also has formed a partnership with Niswonger and 19 other school districts on a federal i3 grant that has resulted in increased Advanced Placement offerings for students in the state. Lynch’s focus on technology, also backed by the board, has resulted in the construction of a new STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) academy at the district’s new high school and has increased dual enrollment opportunities at a community college and a four-year university located in the county. The district has received $17 million in grants and used federal stimulus money to add white boards and document cameras in classrooms.

“We give the administrators the leeway to make the hiring, staffing, and technology decisions to get ready for what’s coming,” Gibson says. “We know if we can teach our students English that they can learn. We know what STEM means, and in the U.S. there’s a huge shortage in this area, and we’ve embraced that. It’s about doing what’s right for everyone.”

The family business

A family-style dynamic starts to form when a group works together for a number of years, whether in industry, a school, or public service. That’s true for the Hamblen County school board, where family ties run especially deep for Gibson and Holt. Both followed their parents into school board service.

Holt, the incoming TSBA president, went to school board meetings as a child and thought about becoming a teacher before starting her career as a health care educator. Now in her 15th year on the Hamblen County board, Holt says she and her fellow members have managed the district’s transitions by “taking care of business at the table.”

“One of the best things about being a superintendent in the same place for 12 years, as unusual as that is, is that all but one board member is still on the board,” Lynch says, noting that Gibson’s appointment in 2003 is the only change in leadership. “Consistency is very important from a board and superintendent, but it has to be quality consistency. And our board has been very good about looking at the district as a whole, not just what at we are doing in their school or their community.”

Board members emphasize they are far from a rubber stamp group. “We don’t always agree, but when we leave the table, we leave the business there,” Holt says. “We know once a decision is made that the majority rules.”

Gibson, an orthodontist who filled the board vacancy left by his father’s death, says serving Hamblen County’s children is a way to pay tribute to his dad. “People didn’t always agree with my father, but they knew where he stood,” Gibson says. “He wasn’t wishy-washy, and he stood for his principles. I’d like to think I’m cut out of a similar mold. Maybe what I say and do is not politically correct … but I remember that’s what my dad wanted me to do --  look out for what’s best for students.”

Both Gibson and Holt are quick to say that Lynch’s leadership has been critical to the success of the board and, ultimately, the district.

“Dr. Lynch makes it easy to be on the board,” Gibson says. “He’s a good strong leader, and we don’t have strong personalities who try to take over the group. When everyone gets behind a good leader, the petty differences go away.”

For Lynch, resting on the laurels of “a banner year” holds no appeal. “It’s not that great things weren’t happening and we just improved them,” he says of Hamblen County’s success. “Great things were happening, and we’re just continuing to improve them. I think we have a tremendous amount of momentum, but we can’t take our hands off that flywheel. We’ve got to keep up that momentum.”

Glenn Cook (gcook@nsba.org) is publisher and executive editor of American School Board Journal.