Group works to ensure equality in education, discipline in Knox County Schools

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KNOXVILLE (WATE) – When it comes to the education of students in Knox County, there’s a push to make sure all children reach the finish line despite economics, race or ability. The effort is backed up by data that showed Knox County had disproportions in academic achievement and discipline for some groups of students.

Seventh grader Jahneulie Weste says her time at Vine Middle Magnet School has been a positive experience.

“Well, I am the kind of student that loves to come to school to be with my friends. I mean, I love learning. I don’t like waking up early in the morning, but I still love being around the people that get to teach me,” said Weste.

She comes to the school at a time when there’s a huge effort to improve the school environment and educational approach. The Disparities in Education Outcomes Task Force has been years in the making. The task force is designed to make sure that there’s equality in education and discipline in Knox County Schools. Community leader Andre Canty serves as one of the chairs of the task force. He says making sure all students are treated fairly is something that can be done without laying blame.

“How can we tackle this from our various viewpoints and not finger pointing, but how can we support one another in our various roles? Our various perspectives – black, white and Hispanic,” says Canty.

Minority students make up 25 percent of Knox County students, but only five percent of teachers are minorities system wide. When it comes to suspensions, minority students make up around 40 percent of all in-school and out-of-school suspensions. Students with economic hardship make up 47 percent of the school system, but make up 80 percent of out of school suspension numbers.

“It’s important that we be reflective and try to understand and be empathetic. Look, when you’re suspending a subset of kids at four times the rate than you are suspending the rest of the kids, there’s a problem,” said interim school superintendent Buzz Thomas.

The task force is looking to make a more compassionate school environment that works to get to the root of behavioral issues so that the first reaction is not always discipline.

“If a child comes in and puts his or her head down on the desk, we’ve got a new partnership with [Knoxville Police Department] called Handle with Care so that if a child has had any kind of traumatic experience in their family, we know about it in our schools the next day and we don’t overreact. And if a kid puts his head down on his desk, he’s not being disrespectful; he’s been up all night,” says Thomas.

Schools like Vine Middle are also leading the way in making sure students are taught what’s expected of them.

“We put a lot of training in place for our kids and our teachers and our staff. De-escalation training. We have positive behavioral intervention and support which is all about teaching kids the behaviors that we want to see and then rewarding them,” says principal Cindy White.

She says it is important to use positive incentives to motivate students.

“It doesn’t matter where you go, I find that kids are kids and they want those good relationships. They want to do well. You just sometimes have to dig down deep and pass some of the barriers that they bring,” says White.

Knox County Schools has already hired an ombudsman to help families and students with disabilities. It will also actively recruit more minority teachers to better reflect the student population. The school system is also looking to use cultural competency training to make sure that teachers are able to effectively communicate with students of all backgrounds and cultures.

“So, even if you are outside this realm, maybe you’re not even a parent or maybe not in one of the most affected schools, these are our kids. So when kids are affected, if kids are being suspended at a higher rate, you have to feel something. Your empathy comes in no matter who you are. If you don’t, I don’t know how you are human,” says Canty.

More online: Read the report from the Disparities in Education Outcomes Task Force

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