At the top of the hill off Steekee Road in Loudon, dozens of workers were in a flurry of activity putting finishing touches on the new Fort Loudoun Middle School. Workers in hard hats on ladders installed ceiling tiles and finished floors in areas throughout the building. Forklifts carried building materials and machines whirred as they worked.
The $17 million school building for grades 6-8 will have four wings with eight classrooms and a science lab per wing. The facility is nearing completion and is slated to open at summer's end.
The front awning still has not been installed, and there's more interior work to be done, but Jason Vance, director of Loudon County Schools, barely can contain his excitement.
"I come here a couple of times a week to see how things are going," Vance said. "I am really proud of this school. It will be a very nice school, but just the fact that we will have enough space for everybody is really neat. The (school) board is to be commended for their work."
In addition to the school building program, the 2012-13 school year brought a watershed of challenges and change with the beginning of Common Core implementation amid school funding issues. Vance said Loudon County Schools personnel met each challenge head-on.
In 2011-12, Loudon County Schools was named an exemplary district by the Tennessee Department of Education for meeting a majority of its achievement targets, meeting a majority of gap closure targets and ensuring that every subgroup of students with disabilities or students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds moves forward in a majority of target areas.
Vance said that direction is expected to continue.
"Last year, was a really interesting year, and certainly there were challenges with the budgeting process, the building program and curriculum changes in addition to the day-to-day working of a school system," Vance said. "But last year was a very successful year, and that is 100 percent attributable to the administration and staff of Loudon County Schools. The team really worked hard. We are planning an administrative boot camp at the end of the summer, about late July. I am excited about that."
The hard work is paying off, Vance said.
"We're seeing some growth in numbers in the test assessments," he said. "They are from a preliminary viewpoint, but we are seeing decided growth. I am more impressed by the fact that our students are becoming deeper thinkers. Our writing samples indicate they are becoming deeper thinkers, and ultimately those make more productive and better citizens. We piloted a writing assessment and writing samples showed us we measure constructive response, and we see growth."
The changes have not been easy.
"It has been challenging for teachers to implement," Vance said. "They are outside their comfort zones, and I am really proud of what they have done and what they are continuing to do. Teachers will have a Common Core workshop before school starts for course dissemination. Ultimately, we will be trying to get out as much information as we can. Knowledge is power. We want them to know what the mark is. We have done better than the surrounding counties by starting the transition.
"I don't know that we can even measure the hours," he said. "We are working harder today than ever in the past. There are more difficult lessons and teachers now differentiate instruction, low middle and high. They've always done that to some degree, but we emphasize it more."
The Loudon County school district has 385 teachers.
"There are always great number of challenges," Vance said. "Our goal is to make sure our students are successful at high school, middle school and elementary school levels. ... It culminates, you build on it year upon year. It seems there are not enough hours in the day or days in the week to do what we want. We have to try to figure a way to spread info, disseminate information. We want a happy mix. It is a challenge. We want our kids to grow, but how much is too much, and how much is not enough? It has to be palatable for kids — the right mix. I believe all kids can grow."
The Common Core preparatory challenges will continue through the 2013-14 school year. Then in 2014-15 everything changes.
The Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, TCAP, will be discontinued, and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers will take its place in 2014-15.
That means the school system's technology infrastructure will have to be up to par, which is the next hurdle.
"The Common Core assessment will be an online assessment, and it will require a great amount of technology," Vance said. "It is not about the hardware. It is about the infrastructure, the wireless Internet. We will need a more robust Internet. What makes technology tricky is that you can be prepared and next year or five years from now, it is obsolete. Then what?"
Jennifer Malone, technology coordinator and middle school supervisor, said the district is working to increase technology capabilities.
The school district has purchased 18 mobile laptop computer labs to be used in nine schools, Malone said, emphasizing "most of the things we are spending money on are things you cannot see."
"We are doing everything we can to make sure our wireless Internet structure is robust and our bandwidth is adequate," she said. "The problem is that nobody can tell us exactly what is adequate, so we will be doing a lot of testing this coming year. We are working with the state and doing what they tell us, but it is challenging to stay ahead of it."
Vance said he believes the school district's successes will continue.
"We need to invest in our teachers to retain the caliber of teachers we need," he said. "We are an exemplary school district, and I am proud of our team."