Earth Day Science March

I stand with two science educators from Greeneville, Tennessee, at the Science March.

Over 2,000 people spent their Earth Day marching through the streets of downtown Asheville, North Carolina, helping to set an “unprecedented” number of people demonstrating in the name of science.
“I worry that policy makers and pundits have ulterior motives for spreading misinformation,” said Marie Sharpe, a seventh-grade science teacher from Greeneville, Tennessee. “They typically have the platforms to do so.”The record turnout across the country is attributed to the current presidential administration, according to the Washington Post.

The Science March in Asheville was one of approximately 60 worldwide. There were nearly 35,000 #sciencemarch posts on Instagram alone.

“I hope that the demonstrations will empower people to examine science-related issues with a critical eye, rather than taking information from non-experts at face value,” said the teacher.

Buncombe County High School student Luke Shealy organized the event.

“As soon as I heard about the march, I planned on attending,” said Sharpe. “It was about a month out that I made hotel reservations.”

The march began at in Aston Park and took an hour to complete. People arrived with signs depicting phrases like “There is no PLANet B,” “Stop the freakin’ frackin'” and “the oceans are rising, and so are we.”

At the march’s ending in Pack Square, Shealy introduced six prominent members of the community who advocated for scientific funding. The event was so successful that t-shirts are being reprinted for sale.

“My participation was intended to show my students that my beliefs are more than a sign on the wall, that actions are necessary to ensure innovations will persist and that the world will continue to benefit from science exploration,” said Sharpe.



Tennessee Online Public School

Established in 2012, The Tennessee Online Public School is the only virtual high school that supports students on a statewide level.

Based in Bristol, Tennessee, TOPS was made possible by the Virtual Schools Act of 2011. Principal Jason Horne designed the school and has led it since its founding. TOPS is currently the highest performing virtual school in Tennessee with a budget of $485,000.

“We don’t have a target student,” said Horne. “But our niche has been students who need a flexible schedule.”

TOPS uses an online learning management system called Canvas to interact with its students. On the site, students are able to watch videos made by their teachers, complete course assignments and keep track of their progress. They are also equipped with a Google Drive to hold all of their files. Students are held accountable through weekly due dates, which determine their course grades as well as their attendance.

“We still get some truancy issues,” said Horne. “And we always have procrastination issues.”

Students are able to apply online and submit a one-time application fee of $125. The acceptance rate at TOPS is approximately 85 percent, and roughly 250 students are served each year. This year, TOPS is expected to have a graduation rate of 100 percent.

“We do require students to be on track to graduate on time,” said Horne. “And we have determined that students coming in with a 2.5 or better are typically responsible enough to handle the independent required by online education.”

Students who attend a brick-and-mortar school are also invited to apply as dual-enrollment students.

Not all of a TOPS student’s time is spent at home online. TOPS is NCAA approved for Division I sports as well. The school co-ops with Tennessee High School in Bristol, Tennessee so that some students may pursue an athletic career.

TOPS also supports student-led clubs and organizations. Students vote whether or not to have a prom, and an in-person graduation ceremony concludes each year. TOPS requires that each student complete 25 community service hours annually in order to keep them involved in their own communities. The students also are given points for attending social events.

“You don’t have to sit through things you don’t like,” said Horne. “You don’t have to put up with nonsense from people. You don’t have to wake up at a certain time, or be somewhere from 7:30-2:30, Monday through Friday. You don’t have to worry about what someone thinks about [you].”

However, there are some hands-on opportunities that students are unable to receive from an online platform. Electives like welding, culinary arts and agriculture must be accessed elsewhere.

Additionally, students are unable to take their End of Course tests online without supervision. They must travel to either Bristol, Knoxville, Nashville or Memphis to sign in and sit through the exam in person.

“This year, we’re doing paper and pencil tests,” said Horne. “Next year and beyond, our tests will be administrated on computer [at the four testing centers].”

In the past, TOPS has scored in level five for growth and has the highest level of achievement in the state.

Horne explained the independence and drive that a student must have to succeed in his school.

“Nobody is going to hold your hand and tell you to get your work in,” said Horne. “That happens after you’ve already not gotten it in. Nobody is going to reach out to make friends with you because they notice you’re lonely. Nobody is going to shame you for not showering.”


Proposed Budget Cuts

President Trump’s administration has proposed budget cuts to multiple programs that fund public schools across the nation.

On the chopping block is the 21st Century Learning Grant, as well as Title I funding.

The 21st Century Learning Grant provides funding for before school, after school and summer programs for low income children. Greeneville City Schools in Greeneville, Tennessee receive $412,000 annually from these grants.

“If 21st Century goes away, three of our four elementary schools will lose their before school, after school and summer school programs,” said Ken Fay, Federal Projects Director for Greeneville City Schools.

The Trump administration’s budget proposal removes this program altogether.

Also up for cuts is Title I funding. This program began over 50 years ago, but is now looking at a 17 percent decrease in public school distribution money. According to Fay, this deficit could be felt by his school system as early as next year.

“These funds provide for additional staff in the schools,” said Fay. “It also allows schools to purchase equipment and other supplies that they would normally not be able to have.”

The amount of Title I funding a school system receives depends on the number of children who qualify for free and reduced meals at their schools. Approximately $500,000 is currently being provided to Greeneville City Schools each year. By August, the system may be reduced to $415,000.

“This will be a significant loss of revenue, and we do not have the ability to generate this amount of funds,” said Fay. “This will result in staffing cuts, particularly in the area of [Response to Intervention] where a lot of assistants help children who are struggling with reading.”



Student Achievement Measurements

In previous years, educators under the third grade level were evaluated through observation, not off their children’s state test scores. That is about to change.

The state of Tennessee will be requiring portfolios on each child in pre-kindergarten and first grade starting next year.

These portfolios will contain the child’s work from both the beginning and the end of the year. This is intended to show the state each child’s growth and progress in the classroom.

Before this implementation, teachers who instructed younger grade levels were evaluated based on the testing scores of third grade and above. While pre-k teacher Heather LeMay agrees that it is fair for teachers to earn their own scores, she still has a reservation about the upcoming implementation.

“All you have to do is show a picture of [the children’s work] and then show a picture of it improved,” LeMay said. “To me, that’s very easy to manipulate and do yourself. You’re not looking into what my kids can do.”

The portfolios will be sent to Nashville, Tennessee, at the end of the 2017-2018 academic year. These are to be graded by educators who teach pre-k through second grade throughout the state.

A phase-in of this program is scheduled to rollout in the next three years. Next year the program will pilot with pre-k and kindergarten. In the fall of 2018, the program will be implemented in the first grade, and the following year portfolios will be required in the second.

Portfolios are considered an alternative to state testing. Teachers can submit handwriting, basic match worksheets or something else that measures a student’s achievement.

Pre-k through second grade is not required to take state testing, but the Johnson City School System gives a benchmark exam to these students each year to monitor their progress.

“Progress monitoring is really hard,” said LeMay. “Because I don’t do a lot of worksheets, it’s not evidence-based, it’s more observational.”

Click the photo below to see the changes in education policy in Tennessee:



Career Quest

Career Day for first-graders typically involves their parents standing up and teaching the class about their jobs.

For students ages 13 to 15, Career Day got an upgrade.

Students across East Tennessee attended Career Quest on Wednesday, held in the Mini Dome of East Tennessee State University. The event invited professionals in many different fields to speak with students about what their future careers could look like.

“I would have like to have known the ‘cons’ of a job [in addition to the pros],” said Ashley Loven, an eighth grade student from Greeneville Middle School.

Career Quest held interactive booths where students could try a specific skill rather than simply watching. They were able to gather hands-on experience to test if the profession would be a reasonable fit for them.

“This experience helped me learn that I might want to work with babies,” said Ryleigh Whittenburg, a classmate of Loven.

While the event was considered positive by some students, others worried about the future they were expected to build.

“This experience gave me a large variety of options,” said Loven. “But it freaked me out a little because I’m only in eighth grade, and I felt like I already needed to have my life put together.”