Assistant superintendent of Bedford County Schools Tim Harwell was recent guest speaker at Bedford County Republican and Democrat forums to answer the community’s questions about the schools’ policies, budget, and growth.
Harwell has been a part of Bedford County Schools for over 20 years. He taught history at Harris Middle School and eventually became assistant principal there. Later he worked as principal at Liberty Elementary and Middle School, Cascade High School, and Shelbyville Central High.
Population and learning growth
As assistant superintendent, he spoke on the challenges the school system is facing as the county faces new levels of population growth.
Harwell explained the need for school maintenance. For example, Southside, Eakin, and Thomas Magnet are all 50+ years old. This is in addition to the one of the schools’ main focuses of getting students out of portables— which are not safe during severe weather and are not soundproof.
The school board is looking to build a new elementary school near the 437 Bypass, which is under negotiation and will cost somewhere in the ballpark of $25 million, Harwell said. It will accommodate around 800 students.
Bedford County Schools is also continuing to provide the virtual schools platform, while Harwell assures, “We haven’t gotten close to having to shut the schools down” for an outbreak.
But the schools have seen other kinds of growth beyond population. Even with the pandemic shutdowns, Bedford County students have experienced significant growth.
“We were a level 5 system— first time we’ve been that in a long, long time...and nine of our schools were a level 5,” Harwell said. Level 5 (the highest) means that local students had more than significant growth, compared to where they were, as based on the Tennessee Department of Education’s Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS).
This is despite the pandemic shutdowns, which Harwell said created “learning gaps” as students were required to quarantine.
The system, as of Monday, had seven students out for quarantine, Harwell said. Thirty-six teachers as well were celebrated as Level 5, which means the majority of their students they taught grew significantly more than what was expected.
“Teachers are miracle workers,” Harwell said at the Republican Forum which was held Nov. 8. “I could not leave here without singing the praises of our teachers. It is a very tough job.”
But the teacher shortage is one of their biggest concerns in the school system as Bedford County competes with other school districts in Williamson and Rutherford. Harwell said they hire around 70 teachers every year.
And one of the ways the school system hopes to combat this is through raising teacher pay. But in addition to providing higher pay (which starts around $38,000 for teachers), mentors, and benefits, Harwell says they “worked on the culture of the schools” so that way teachers wanted to be there because they felt supported.
In addition to getting more teachers engaged in the school system, Harwell also talked about the need to get students more engaged.
Part of the state-wide high school redesigning program is the initiative to get more college-level classes and credits into the high schools so students can effectively work toward higher education.
“What we’re looking at right now is other systems and what their success is. And in most cases, they are requiring more credits to graduate...” Harwell told T-G.
In other words, more credits help you get ready for next step after high school.
“Currently, the design we have in high schools, we’re not doing everything we can do to better prepare our students for the next step in their life. We want to provide that; we just don’t have the structure in place to provide all of those things.”
Funding talks with Democrats
At the Democratic Forum, held Nov. 15, Harwell answered questions about funding and the budget. According to Harwell, schools receive three primary funding sources from the state (which is the majority), federal (which is ear-marked for specific aspects), and local (which is from sales and property taxes). This totals to a budget of $96 million this year.
With the ESSER 3.0 grant, the County received $13 million—part of which will go to building a new wing at Community High School. But Harwell said the system must “be careful” in using these funds because the money will “run dry” in about three years.
Harwell also said they are applying for other grants like Reading 360, which is a plan to help improve children learning their phonics to be at an accurate reading level.
A new formula for the Better Education Program (BEP) funding, which is based on population, is being presented at the state level.
As a rural county superintendent, Tammy Garrett, according to Harwell, has been advocating for rural counties to make sure the county doesn’t get “shortchanged” with the new formula.
Several questions about school vouchers were asked during the Democratic Forum; however, the state’s voucher program was only applied to Nashville and Memphis-area schools, so Harwell could not speak to their effect on a county-level.
But as expressed by both political groups, there is much appreciation for the Bedford County public schools.
Harwell said positively, “I have a lot of great things to say about our county and our education system with what we’re doing right now.”
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