The first day of classes in the Walker County school system will be Wednesday, Aug. 7.

Teacher pre-planning days are scheduled for Aug. 1-2 and Aug. 5-6, so the teacher’s summer will come to an end much sooner than students, as usual.

Walker County School Superintendent Damon Raines says school principals are excited and most of them are already on the job, working to ready the schools in advance of the next bunch of future leaders they are helping to shape.

This is probably most evident at the Title 1 Schools, which receive federal dollars to help ensure low-income students have their educational needs met. But teachers never see any of these federal dollars themselves, often dipping into their own pockets to dress up their rooms, according to Raines, and often to the tune of $200 to $300 each.

Number one Title 1 school

Raines provided a one-on-one tour on July 17, along with Rossville Elementary School Principal Courtney Gadd, to show just what the most impoverished school is doing with the federal dollars entrusted to them to raise the educational standards for a school that is 98% free-and-reduced at meal time.

Raines said that Rossville Elementary is “our highest free-and-reduced school across the district.” That means it is the number one Title 1 school in the Walker County district.

Gadd said that the school’s percentage of free-and-reduced “has gone up every year.”

“I think this is a 100% school (free-and-reduced) in my opinion,” Raines said. But, sometimes, he said it is hard to ascertain the exact true percentage of poverty for the area because there are some families in generational poverty and their pride will not allow them to even fill out the forms that would better educate the school of their need — and ensure more tax dollars are sent from the federal government to help.

According to Raines, this hurts the school’s ability to assist, as well as hurting the family and the child, but he “gets it” about why some will not fill out the forms.

That is why the superintendent thinks that the school number may never reflect 100% on paper (and federal dollars for such a percentage will not be received) even if that is the true percentage of people being served at Rossville Elementary.

Population served growing

For these 380 to 460 or so students to be served during the academic year, Gadd said that “if you actually run the numbers of how many students transfer in and transfer out during the school year we are always way over 500.”

Raines said the “transient rate” for Rossville Elementary “is the highest in the system as well,” making the issue of creating stability almost as important as meeting the poverty needs.

“We do have some children that start with us, then leave, and then come back again within the same school year,” according to Gadd.

And, the long-term principal stated that the school’s proximity to Chattanooga also plays a role, like when “they closed a lot of the low-end housing in Chattanooga we saw more of an influx, and that’s kind of tapered off a little bit, but we still have some that find housing in East Lake and try to use grandparents’ addresses to be able to bring their children here.”

“Which,” the educator said, “is a compliment (to us and our school), but, the children we are working with and needing to serve are the ones in our district.”

Superintendent visits often

Gadd said, “Mr. Raines probably knows my school building better than I do, since he comes so often.” But Raines explained that he wasn’t checking up on her or her faculty when he comes, it is just that his “heart is with special needs kids and with Title 1 kids, so I come by this school probably three to four times more than I go to any other school in the district.”

In fact, Raines says that the right way to run a school system is to not be missed if you have to be absent. “If I miss a day’s work, everything moves forward; nobody misses me (because I have qualified and competent staff to handle things I have communicated are important and need to be a focus at other times).”

But, the busy superintendent also wants to be present at the schools often, because he says “when teachers walk in the building at 7 o’clock in the morning and they’re tired, I want them to see me and go ‘wow,’ he’s here at 7 o’clock in the morning. He’s not going into the office at 9:30.”

Special needs focus

Gadd says Rossville Elementary has several special needs classes. They have “one of the SPED Pre-K classrooms, which serves 3- to 4-year-olds. They come 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., five days a week. And, we have a CBE classroom — our community-based class — and they are kindergarten through fifth-graders.”

The principal pointed out that while her school used to be the only school to serve CBE students, the school system now has two additional CBE classrooms elsewhere on the same side of the county.”

CBE students “do a lot of basic needs (work, such as): brushing their teeth, brushing their hair, washing their hands. They do a lot of cooking, and even study ‘what is money? And, ‘why is it important to make money?’ among other things.”

The elementary school principal said these students “follow their own specific curriculum, and it’s a neat classroom that serves students K through 5 grade levels.”

As part of the program to develop this special needs group’s communication skills, the students are tasked with delivering the fresh fruit and vegetable grand food items to all the other classrooms in the school each day, according to Gadd.

“They (the students) will knock on the (classroom) door and say: ‘Good morning, you have strawberries for snack today.’“ Gadd said, stating that the communication activity serves two purposes: helping special needs kids develop better communication skills and, to help the other kids in the school learn to interact with the special needs kids.

One little boy, according to Gadd, who would not speak at all two years ago is now moving into a fifth-grade classroom for more in-depth socialization skills as a result of his work in the CBE class.

Raines says that this approach helps foster familiarity and reduce stigmatism regarding special needs kids. “With our other student population interacting with them in this way and other ways, they are not viewed as ‘different’ and interaction is not an ‘abnormality,’ so our special needs kids don’t stand out, per se.”

Elementary special needs student terms vs. high school

The superintendent says “community-based education is the elementary school term to describe that grade level’s focus educationally, while middle grades and the high school use the term “community-based and vocational” to describe the educational goal of special needs students at that level because “our goal is to get them a job somewhere when they graduate.”

Who decides a student is special needs?

Raines says: “There are specific qualifications for them to be placed in a special needs classroom. That’s not a decision we make. That’s determined by a school psychologist, a team IP, a parent, so the goal here is to get them where they can function in society.”

Gadd says that when she was “academic coach at Naomi, we didn’t have that CBE classroom experience opportunity,” which is why she loves being at Rossville now, because it has introduced her to this opportunity to engage with these special need community of students — and to see their potential realized.

“We already had a child who was in SPED Pre-K and now he has worked himself out of the class and into his grade-level classroom,” Gadd said. “He is now a fifth-grader.”

SPED kids may have their own area of the school, much like the different grade levels are separated on particular hallways. But, according to Gadd, they “go on field trips with (and participate in) typical grade-level activities the other classrooms in the school are doing.

Qualifications for being a SPED classroom teacher?

The qualifications required to be a teacher of a SPED classroom, according to Superintendent Raines, include being a special education teacher and having other specialized training on the teaching certificate, such as adaptive skills, as well as reading, math, social studies qualifications, too, like Kathy Murphy does for Rossville Elementary’s SPED class.

Finding such a professional with these qualifications, and someone who has the required love and compassion for this special needs group of students — and someone who will live in this particular geographical area — can be a challenge for any school. This is why it is important for school systems to offer competitive salaries to teachers that have this combination of special skills, certification and personality,” Raines said.

According to Gadd, the current SPED teacher Kathy Murphy “is a special story herself, since she is a double kidney transplant survivor who came to Walker from the Catoosa school system, where she had originally been a para-pro.”

Raines said that school teacher “certification has changed a lot, which is why we work closely with DSC, namely, Ms. Holloway. We have a certification officer and that’s all they do: they keep up with every teacher’s certifications.”

Certifications more complicated and in-depth

Long gone are the days when a teacher could earn a teaching degree and go into any classroom and teach. Now, Raines says, “we’ve changed a lot in education certification.” He said that he would have to have certifications to teach content for middle grade in addition to his previous certifications in early childhood now if he wanted to teach in a middle school; whereas, previously, he could have moved from elementary school teacher to middle school teacher without any problem.

“So, it’s a little more complicated than somebody being able to walk in and us hiring them right away now,” he said.

Jan Morris is assistant editor for the Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga., and the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga.

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