Director of Schools John English said new this year will be an increased focus on a couple of high-priority issues — school safety and chronic absenteeism.
Straight out of the gates will be a district-wide Safety Awareness Week planned for Monday, Aug. 26-Friday, Aug. 3, with live emergency response drills to be conducted at all six county schools in cooperation with the county sheriff, Erwin police and other first responders.
English noted the public may hear sirens and see a heavy police presence near the schools and asked everyone to remember the drills are being conducted to make the schools as safe as possible.
“Our staff is working closely with Sheriff (Mike) Hensley and Chief (Regan) Tilson to try and make the drills as life-like as possible,” English said. “It was a big effort for us last year and we found some things and revised some things that we could do better. It’s a constant effort.
“It’s important that the kids know what the protocol and procedures are. And it’s better that we do that on the front end rather than later in the year.”
Improving student attendance will also be a district-wide priority from day one onward and reflective a distressing absenteeism rate revealed in last year’s state report card for the county.
“Based on data we have from last year, our absenteeism numbers are simply too high,” English said. “By state standards, one in four students in our schools were chronically absent last year, missing 16 or more days in a single school year.
“So we’re going to emphasize to students and families the importance of being present. There will be incentives. But what it has got to be is us being better at attracting kids, hooking them in, making them want to be at school.”
While enrollment numbers will not be clear until several weeks after school begins, English said the district has dropped consistently for the past five or six years, down from approximately 2,800 students to 2,300 for a total loss of about 500 students.
“That impacts a lot of things,” he said. “The economic development folks talk about new industry that could bring in new people. But then you had the CSX closure that forced people to leave.”
Aside from the numbers, English said he and district staff are “super excited” for the new school year to begin.
“We spend all of June and July planning to get children back in our buildings and, personally, I love that feeling of the first Monday with everyone back in their classrooms. It’s a great time of year.”
English said the school system is blessed by the support of Erwin area churches and organizations that gather supplies for students who may be without the things they need to start back to school. He encouraged any student or family in need of assistance to call the central office at 423-743-1600.
Unicoi County Schools by the numbers:
(From the Tennessee Department of Education 2017-2018 K-12 Report Card)
Number of schools: 6
Student enrollment: 2,325
Classroom teachers: 151
Additional teachers and staff: 34
Average per pupil spending: $10,153
Economically disadvantaged students: 40.2 percent
Students with disabilities: 20.2 percent
Students who are in Foster Care: 0.3 percent
Students who are homeless: 3 percent
Black, Hispanic and Native American students: 13 percent
Migrant students: 0.4 percent
White students: 86.7 percent
English learners: 2.8 percent