Trousdale County Fosters Success with Personal Attention and Innovative Use of Data

When students at Trousdale County High School see graduation coach Shelley Cook waiting for them after class, they usually know what brought her there.

Maybe it’s a course grade starting to slip below passing, or a substantial assignment that wasn’t turned in. Trousdale County High – which is the only high school in SCORE Prize-winning district Trousdale County Schools – uses the PowerSchool system to track attendance and grades, and Ms. Cook logs in first thing each morning to check for any signs of trouble.Whatever the problem, Ms. Cook is ready to help. She tutors, communicates constantly with teachers and coaches, gets to know individual learning needs, and makes sure she understands situations or responsibilities at home that could create barriers. She works closely with juvenile courts and truancy officers, and helps students find their way through credit recovery when necessary.

Ultimately, she makes sure most students don’t drop out.

“It’s just not an option,” Ms. Cook said. “For me, it’s personal.”

With a district-wide graduation rate of 97 percent, it’s clear that dropping out of Trousdale County Schools really is an uncommon occurrence. This small district’s combination of individual attention, high academic expectations, and close monitoring of data delivers big opportunities for students. Trousdale County Director of Schools Clint Satterfield says the district’s defining practices aren’t “rocket science.” Leaders work hard to identify the best moves for students, and then make them happen no matter what.

“We don’t feel that we’re smart or that we’ve cornered the market,” Mr. Satterfield said. “We do think we’ve kept students at the forefront of our conversations. We want to have the courage and the will to do what’s best for our students.”

At Trousdale County Schools, which also won the district SCORE Prize in 2013, value-added and assessment data are closely monitored from elementary school on. Value-added data guide about 85 percent of classroom forming decisions starting with late elementary grades. The district and schools use the data to divide students into three tertiles – low, medium, and high achievers – and monitor which teachers tend to foster the most growth from students within each group. Placements are adjusted based on student performance, as often as every nine weeks at the middle school grades.

There are other factors considered when forming classes, like kids who don’t need to be together or personalities that don’t match. But in most cases, students are grouped in classes with similarly achieving peers and taught by the instructors most likely to help them succeed.

The district’s goal is for each student to have a personalized learning path. Making this happen begins with levelled classes but doesn’t end there. At Trousdale County’s middle school – Jim B. Satterfield Middle, named in honor of Mr. Satterfield’s father – a unique schedule delivers some form of intervention to all students, whether kids are in need of enrichment or RTI2. Kids on an RTI schedule are in 90-minute “coach” blocks of time every other day, receiving skills-based instruction in math and English language arts. All staff members– regardless of subject area – help teach these classes, keeping student groups very small.

“Every kid has the opportunity to grow,” Principal James McCall said. “If every student and every teacher has that mindset, it’s going to be a positive place for learning, and you’re going to see those results at the end of the year. It warms your heart.”

The district also uses data to communicate transparently with parents and the local community. Parent-teacher conference time is closely focused on student growth, proficiency levels, and benchmark data. District strengths and struggles are clearly communicated to local stakeholders, news media, and funders.

“We’ve just built a data culture with our administrators, our parents, our teachers, and our community,” Mr. Satterfield said. “If you don’t know where you are, then it’s hard to plan out where you want to go. We’re rural and we’re poor. We have to strategically leverage every resource we have.”

The district’s remarkable graduation rate is fostered by this culture of high expectations, as well as concrete support for career and education goals. Students in Trousdale County Schools have detailed plans for their lives after graduation before they complete middle school, setting the stage for successful use of time in high school.

All eighth-graders take a fall-semester class called EXPLORE, which combines ACT test preparation with career and academic planning. In the spring, each eighth-grader completes a cross-curricular project identifying a future career plan, necessary academic steps, and the fiscal impact of these decisions – the kinds of houses they might be able to purchase, and what a budget might look like with different numbers of kids. Students visit a range of colleges, from trade schools to state universities. Benefits of the program include solid preparation for high school as well as measurable gains in ACT scores. The district’s ACT average has increased by two points in the last three years.

“We want them on a college and career path before they even set foot in high school. They can change that plan 100 times, but at least they have a goal from the first day,” Mr. Satterfield said. “It’s a lot about motivation and incentive, and kids seeing themselves four years down the road. That helps you prevent the dropouts, if everyone has an idea of where they’re going.”

Tracy Belcher, parent of two Trousdale County students, believes they have benefited academically from class work with similarly achieving peers. The district has also delivered impressive opportunities for her kids to pursue their interests in athletics and music.

For Ms. Belcher, the source of the district’s strengths lies in the commitment level of its educators and leaders.

“It’s not just a job for them. They really want our schools to advance, to help everybody. It’s a personal thing,” Ms. Belcher said. “You think of a small school system as being limited in what kids can do. It’s the opposite. I’m just so proud that a small system like ours can hang in there with the big systems and the private schools.”

Learn more about the student-focused work at Trousdale County Schools in this video: