74 Interview: TN Ed Chief Penny Schwinn on Her Radical Plan Using Schools to Bring Social Services to Rural Areas — and Her Whole-Child Approach to Training Teachers
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The listening tour, the student focus groups, the marquee school transformation plan: There’s a lot about Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s first year on the job that might be straight out of a standard new top teacher’s playbook. But in terms of K-12 education policy, Tennessee is no ordinary playing field. An unusually large number of its schools exist in a degree of geographic isolation that’s hard to fathom, in far-flung mountain hamlets with high levels of substance abuse, few social supports and even fewer economic prospects. The schoolhouse is often a community’s chief — or lone — public building.
The wife and daughter of teachers, Schwinn started her career with Teach for America in Baltimore, founded a charter school in her native Sacramento and was most recently chief of academics for the Texas Education Agency. In that post in 2018, state auditors faulted the way she handled a contract. The audit, which focused on issues surrounding the Texas Education Agency’s procurement procedures, noted that Schwinn did not disclose an existing relationship with a subcontractor of a business the agency hired to analyze special education records. Schwinn has said she was not involved in the contracting process.
In recent years, Tennessee has experienced a number of problems administering its annual state-mandated exams. Perhaps because of this, Gov. Bill Lee touted Schwinn’s expertise in data and testing as one reason for her appointment. At 37, she is both the youngest education commissioner in Tennessee history and the first person of color to hold the position.
A decade after a statewide education overhaul that included higher academic standards, an accountability system that controversially tied teacher evaluations to growth in student performance, and equal measures academic progress and political blowback, the problems Schwinn seeks to address are arguably much harder. Her ambitious, three-pronged plan contemplates academics but also includes using schoolhouses to get mental health, wellness and social services into rural communities and, with a third of Tennessee teachers at retirement age, training their replacements in working with the “whole child.”
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In his February State of the State address, Lee delivered a massive vote of confidence in his new commissioner’s plan. The governor’s budget request for the coming fiscal year includes more than $600 million in new public education spending. If it survives the legislature, the proposal would provide scholarships to train 1,000 new teachers a year, give every teacher in the state a raise, extend a school-based behavioral health program from 36 counties to all 95 in the state and spend $250 million to endow a K-12 mental health fund for students.
Schwinn talked to Beth Hawkins about the challenge of introducing social-emotional learning in Southern, red-state schools, her hope of training teachers free of charge and how to empower schools to respond to emotional disturbances that, in other times, were the responsibility of other civic agencies. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The 74: You’ve been on the job a year, and released an ambitious strategic plan that contains some novel ideas. How you did you come up with it?
Schwinn: I spent a lot of time traveling around the state. In the first 4½ months, I was in over 500 classrooms. We did a statewide educator survey, and I read every single response. We ended up having over 35,000 folks respond. What we heard — without exception, in every zip code, every income bracket, every regional context — was that the whole-child work was the No. 1 concern and priority for the state.
Second to that was concern about the profession of teaching and ensuring that we had enough high-quality teachers. In Tennessee, a third of our teachers are retirement-eligible right now, over 20,000 of the 65,000 we have.
It’s more than concerning; it’s borderline panic, if you think about how much institutional knowledge and talent, the capacity that we will likely be losing over the next 10 years, as we’re seeing this influx of need for whole-child and mental health work.
There’s no way to address the whole child, there’s no way to address literacy, and there’s no way to address the profession of teaching if we’re not thinking about the two most important groups: the student who’s sitting in the classroom and the educator who’s in front of that student every single day.
We led with a whole-child focus, and I would say in the Deep South, in a conservative state, that was a risk.
Many people live in places where the idea of social-emotional learning and wraparound services or student wellness supports wouldn’t be controversial.
For many families, in large extent across Tennessee — and I definitely saw this in Texas — there’s a really strong belief that the parent is responsible for child development. That’s their responsibility, and they’re right. The belief is that the school is really focused on the academic standards. Crossing those lines, for a lot of folks, is the same as crossing the line between the role of the state and the school and the role of the family.
We know that if we are going to teach a kindergartner to read, it is not as easy as looking at just phonemic awareness. It’s the science of reading, which we are also pushing in our strategic plan in the first priority area. We know that love of reading, the ability to read, comes with effective developmental practices. But those two together is going to produce the most effective context and environment in which a child can learn.
“We would like every teacher in the state to be dual certified in their area as well as special education. Because 98 percent of teachers have a child with a disability in their classroom. Certainly 100 percent have children who just need differentiation in some way. That good practice and pedagogy you learn in special education programs, every teacher should be able to have those strategies in their tool belt.”
We’re trying to balance the cultural norms and values systems we see here in Tennessee and make sure we are able to support the entire child development process as it relates to building up students who are graduating with a degree that means something and on a path to achieve whatever they want for themselves. Because this is a state so rooted in the importance of family and the responsibility of family, we believe that supporting the whole child honors that.
One quick anecdote: There was a young girl a county outside of Nashville. Her name is Anna. She talked about the things we know to be true about middle school in general and she said, “The most important thing to me is to make sure that I have a best friend at school that I can eat lunch with and an adult I can go to when I have a problem. If I have those two things, I feel better and I can get through anything.”
It feels so easy to say, of course all kids have friends, and of course all kids have someone they can go to when they have problems, but you think about it, and you scan lunchrooms, too many of our kids don’t have a peer group that is supporting them. Too many of our kids don’t have an adult, whether at school or at home, whom they feel comfortable going to when they have problems.
You encountered some geographic challenges that feed into that.
The vast majority of our districts are rural, and the vast majority — I mean 80 percent to 90 percent plus — are significantly economically disadvantaged. There is no real economic development or prospect. A great deal of the population is dependent on government aid. We have entire counties that do not have comprehensive hospitals. They’re driving 20 minutes to a grocery store, let alone to get medical care.
These are districts and communities that are in the mountains. We have one where there’s one road in and one road out. A massive storm closed it down, so those students literally could not get to school. Access to resources and services across the state is pretty sparse for many of our communities.
Providing resources is not just game-changing but life-changing to communities. They are getting access to the kinds of supports that we take for granted when we live in more populated metropolitan centers, or in states that have very, very different funding and infrastructure around this specific issue.
This is an equity play, but it’s also, frankly, a community health and wellness play. Without this, I don’t think that we can address many of the issues that we’re seeing around addiction and poverty that we are seeing in Tennessee.
After canvassing this very complicated landscape, you came up with a strategic plan that sounds unique in how its initiatives interlock.
It has three priority areas. The first is high-quality academics, and that’s focused on literacy and high-quality materials, effective assessment linked to those materials and career exploration in all grades. The third is on educators. Ensuring that we prepare, support and retain educators so we don’t have 10,000 students every day who don’t have a credentialed teacher in front of them.
That second pillar around the whole child is about thinking differently about resources. It has three components. The first is specifically on whole-child mental health. The second is what we’re calling C3: civics, citizenship and character education. The third is around special populations.
What we found both in the data and in our conversations is that the biggest increase in students identified with a disability or needing an additional resource is around behavior-related issues. That’s one thing that we are seeing that our teachers do not feel equipped to support. We have counties in the state of Tennessee, full counties, with one mental health professional — total.
“There are two places that almost everybody in the state is going to go, and that is the public school and the DMV. These very rural communities — the school is the lifeblood. It’s where meetings are. It’s where you go to vote. This was the easiest way to bring people together in one specific space and to disseminate information.”
We have family resource centers that have traditionally been places where you can go and get information. We’re redesigning those resource hubs so there is access to resources not just in broader regions but at the county level.
We’re able to do that because we are, for the first time, coordinating across state agencies with resources for health care for low-income families, resources related to mental health and addiction support, which Tennessee has a significant challenge with. We can bring all those state agencies together under one roof, as opposed to each of them being housed in different buildings in the county. Those hubs will include physical health, mental health support, counseling supports.
By having that at the district, we can utilize busing routes in off hours to be able to transport students and families. We can utilize school buses differently to make sure that students have access to services. And because it’s at the district level, we’re working with our state Medicaid to see that it’s all billable to TennCare.
We’re building out an online tool to allow for a quick referral system so that teachers who are facing challenges with students are able to quickly refer that child to the site-based coordinator. That person would then be able to contact the family and then contact this local hub.
Within five years, we want to get to the point where every child is getting same-day services free of charge so it’s not falling on the teacher to provide that level of support. Making it that one-stop shop is incredibly important, just like we do when we shop for hotels and airline tickets. We go to one place and we get everything we need.
Put another way, schools are in places where other agencies are not.
There are two places that almost everybody in the state is going to go, and that is the public school and the DMV.
These very rural communities — the school is the lifeblood. It’s where meetings are. It’s where you go to vote. This was the easiest way to bring people together in one specific space and to disseminate information. We get to the vast majority, 80 percent to 90 percent of the population, very, very quickly.
Think about Laurel Bloomery, which is in the very northeast tip of the state. It is very, very difficult to get to. When you think about a child who is in crisis in that particular area of the state, it is unreal to think that we’re going to get same-day services in the same way that you would if you’re in metro Nashville.
While trying to build this statewide apparatus, you are confronting a wave of teacher retirements. As terrifying as that is, does it also present an opportunity to train new teachers to work in this complex landscape? For example, you are using “Grow Your Own” teacher training programs — where districts identify and train their own future teachers — to ensure educators have the skill sets their districts will need.
We’re trying to create as many avenues into the profession as possible, with a really high bar of expectation. We’d like it to be free to become a teacher in the state of Tennessee.
“Grow Your Own” is one way that we’re looking to do that. Our pilot district worked with a local university so that their high school students get their university degree for free in three years. During that time, they are in the classroom with a top-rated teacher. It reduces the class size ratio and they have three years, paid, to learn under that teacher.
They’re getting a college degree for free, better credentials in elementary education and special education, health care and three years paid with a pension. This year it’s training 50 teachers. We’re expanding it statewide, and we now have three universities who’ve committed.
We have a lot of initiatives related to building up that workforce. We are committed to not just get more teachers who are trained in the way that we’ve always trained teachers; we would like every teacher in the state to be dual certified in their area as well as special education. Because 98 percent of teachers have a child with a disability in their classroom. Certainly 100 percent have children who just need differentiation in some way. That good practice and pedagogy you learn in special education programs, every teacher should be able to have those strategies in their tool belt.
Within our educator prep programs, we are working very closely to talk through a course sequence that requires understanding of behavior management practices and appropriate developmental and behavioral expectations, and strategies and pedagogy to handle students depending on where they are. That will be part of the regular expectations as we train and prepare a very significant new wave of teachers. The strategic plan is intended to ensure that we’re not just doing things in isolation, but are doing things in a way that’s going to ensure that we have the personnel to support all the programmatic work that we’re doing in a long-term, sustainable way.
You said behavioral needs have increased. There is a national debate at the moment about popular perceptions versus school-level realities. What does your data tell you?
We’ve seen an increase in the number of students who are identified with emotional disturbance. We’ve seen an increase in the percent of students identified in the earliest grades. We are seeing increased incidents of discipline.
We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of students who bring a firearm to school. We saw a big increase, and now we’re basically maintaining or plateauing on bullying incidents, but we are above the national average. We are looking at episodes of depression and other behavior that you start to see in adolescence being reported earlier and earlier.
“These are districts and communities that are in the mountains. We have one where there’s one road in and one road out. A massive storm closed it down, so those students literally could not get to school. Access to resources and services across the state is pretty sparse for many of our communities. Providing resources is not just game-changing but life-changing.”
Every child brings some level of challenge. What is it that that specific student needs from the school community and from the broader community? We hear more doctors talking about serving the whole patient. We haven’t necessarily done a great job of that in education.
I think often we identify a disability and say, “Let’s provide intervention or services for that.” Or, “This child is struggling with this specific standard — let’s go deal with that,” when really we need to take a step back and say, “What is it that this child needs to thrive?”
We are creating a state monitoring system so schools can earn bronze, silver and gold badges to demonstrate that they have created an ecosystem that is supportive and safe for all children and addresses all their fundamental needs, academic as well as developmental.
It also helps us because, as you well know, there’s a lot of social-emotional learning curricula available, and that’s not something that’s going to be appropriate here in Tennessee. So we’re creating something that’s really specific to Tennessee.
We’re starting this out this year in real time. We’ve been working with the Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services around a mental health badge. That is going into schools, looking at the quality of mental health services and supports that are provided within that school community and then providing a badge for that school.
That’s our starting point. It’s the most lightning-rod starting point, but it’s to really spark conversation and say we’re serious about doing something real in this state.
Your predecessors pushed big changes that were not always popular. Did you inherit a state that is ready for you?
I’ve got three kids, so for me it’s personal and professional. And we’ve got a million kids that are also mine that I hope get what they need to be able to be their best selves and achieve whatever dreams they set for themselves. If we don’t support high-quality academics, we don’t support a growing and at the same time shrinking educator workforce, we don’t support the whole child, then we’re missing the basics of a high-quality public education. So it’s a privilege to be able to do this work. It’s just really, really hard.
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