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Director of schools interview process ends
school bus

Turner touts love for local schools

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Autumn Turner expressed her passion for Warren County Schools and a strong desire to be its next director.

“I am confident in every way in my head and in my heart that I am the right fit for this position,” Turner said. “I am the candidate most well-poised to be able to continue our work. Not only to continue it, but to lead us to greater levels of attainment and performance and outcomes for our kids.”

That statement came at the end of an hour-long interview before Warren County School Board members Tanya Bess, Teddy Jones, Sue Anderson, Helen Martin and Bill Zechman in which Turner outlined her future plans if she’s named director.

When asked about possible changes within the team, Turner said adjustments would be made if it’s determined an employee’s strengths are not being utilized.

“We’ve got a good structure in place, but there are possible changes I would want to consider,” said Turner. “I think to maximize our effectiveness and the potential that we have, we need to take a strength-based approach and look to see how we can use our people in the right way. I think we might need to make some adjustments.”

As an example, she stated an early grades coordinator is obtaining a doctorate in literacy and she’d like to “empower” that person and make sure the school system utilizes that advancement in education to its benefit. 

Principals are instructional leaders, said Turner, but they have to continually “fight fires” and that takes away from the leverage they have over educating students. 

“If we do not create the structures that allow them to take care of fighting the fires through whatever other means we may have, but keep an eye on that instructional focus that is really going to act as a mover for students in their building, then we are losing sight of the ball. I want to do some different things to support principals differently so they can really take care of job No. 1 and that’s making sure we are moving student achievement.”

Along with visiting classrooms and discussing teacher needs, Turner wants to meet parents so they feel comfortable in coming to her with issues.

“I want to make it a habit to be in school frequently,” she said. “I know that’s going to be hard for the director of schools, but I think that takes care of important work. It takes care of parents feeling like they know the director of schools and they can go to that person. From 7:20 to 7:45 (a.m.) is when school drop-off lines are most busy. It would be so easy, before I go into the office, to go to Hickory Creek and help open doors to see parents and let parents see me. I think there’s a lot to that.”

Turner was asked her thoughts on a certified social worker on every campus. 

“I would be very much in favor of that. I think that is something Warren County Schools does very well. We go above and beyond to make sure that we protect other aspects that are important for our children beyond just academics. We want to do the best job we can with academics but we also notice and recognize there’s more to taking care of kids than just that.”

Turner was asked her intentions if she’s not given the position. 

“Warren County School matters to me,” said Turner. “It’s where I want to be. I have no intentions of leaving the Warren County School System.”

Turner is one of four individuals being interviewed by Warren County School Board members. A meeting is scheduled for May 7 at 5 p.m. to deliberate and vote on which one will be offered the position.

Swallow seeks to improve culture

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Grant Swallows wants to focus on improving school culture, if named director of Warren County Schools.

“It feels like I can’t pull up a Tennessee Department of Education update without something in Warren County being featured in it,” said Swallows. “There are a lot of great things going on here with all the different opportunities that students have so that’s a pat on your back. We need to shine our star where we can.” 

Warren County School Board members Tanya Bess, Teddy Jones, Sue Anderson, Helen Martin and Bill Zechman interviewed Swallows, who is principal of White County High School, on Saturday for the director of schools position that will be open at the end of the school year.

The initial statement from Swallows was made when he was asked about strengths and weaknesses within Warren County Schools. 

“Unfortunately, I think districts are measured on test scores more than they should be, but that’s the measurement of our society at this time,” said Swallows. “I think there are some challenges there in performance. As you look at some of the growth scores, I don’t think you are where you want to be as a district in growth scores. That’s a challenge. It’s a tough challenge for everybody, but that can get better.”

Improving White County’s school culture, which refers to the way teachers and other staff members work together and the set of beliefs, values, and assumptions they share, helped increase students’ ability to learn and improved test scores. 

“Culture trumps strategy,” said Swallows. “I believe that wholeheartedly. I can tell you this, it has served us well in White County. At White County High School before I came there, we had some apathy. We had some who maybe weren’t happy to be there all the time. That’s hard. It’s hard to perform on a state test or maybe it’s hard to perform in the classroom when maybe you don’t want to be there. So, using the adage culture trumps strategy, we just had to get our culture right. We had to do some things to make people want to be a part of our culture. We have to get them sold on what we’re doing.”

Swallows said culture plays a big role in how well students perform.  

“I guarantee you that if I walked into a classroom in Warren County, they aren’t doing anything different than what districts are that are scoring highly on these tests, but the culture may be better somewhere else. So, we are going to attack that culture. Whatever it takes. You’ll ask me, ‘How do you fix culture?” Well, that’s a team effort. That starts with you guys as the board. It goes to the director. It goes to the central office staff. It goes down to the school staff, the building leaders. It goes to the community. You have to fix that culture.”

The culture in Warren County Schools may not be lacking. 

“I’m from the outside looking in. I don’t know that yet,” said Swallows. “I think it’s a great opportunity from somebody from the outside coming in to have a unique perspective of ‘Alright, maybe this school may not be where it needs to be culture-wise, so let’s attack this. This school is where it needs to be culture-wise, so let’s take what they’re doing and make it work over here.’”

As director, Swallows says he will first build relationships and trust.

“We’ve got to make sure that we establish that relationship, first and foremost, to be able for them to feel comfortable coming to me. They need to be able to trust me. I’m going to be someone who listens and set about helping them.”

Warren County School Board members interviewed four individuals for the open position as director. A meeting is scheduled for May 7 at 5 p.m. to deliberate and vote on which one will be offered the position. 

Bennett believes in personalized learning

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Dr. Courtney Bennett wants to fill the gaps in the Warren County School System’s current curriculum by adding a new program that meets the personal needs of each student, K-12.

“Blended learning is something that is being utilized across the country right now,” Bennett said. “It aligns with personalized learning. What that does is focus on how to best service students where they’re at. Meeting kids where they are. We’ve talked about that a lot in our district-level team meetings. Personalized learning focuses on the strengths and the weaknesses of each student and it tries to build instruction around each student’s needs.”

Warren County School Board members Tanya Bess, Teddy Jones, Sue Anderson, Helen Martin and Bill Zechman interviewed Bennett on Saturday for the director of schools position that will be open at the end of the school year. 

Bennett touched on that program again when asked what one thing she feels would improve student achievement.

“I would look at implementation of personalized learning,” said Bennett. “If you aren’t familiar with that, Google it. Look into it. Look at surrounding counties. I’ve spoken with the director of schools in White County. They are really pushing personalized learning, K-12. We are on the cusp of doing that here but we haven’t yet. We haven’t embraced that yet. One person alone in the district, me, saying we need to do this can’t make it magically happen. There has to be buy in across the district.”

She was questioned about working with the business community.

“That’s something I’m really excited about,” said Bennett. “I think that having a positive relationship with business and industry partners is integral to our system. We live in a community where we have a tremendous amount of industry. I think in order to keep a continual workforce prepared and ready to go out, I think we have to keep constant contact with those business partners.”

Zechman asked how she would handle a teacher who chronically underperforms.

“Obviously, you are going to run into that from time to time and changes in staff will need to be made,” said Bennett, who says a plan of action can be used. “That teacher is given an opportunity to correct that behavior. If they do, great. They’ll work their way off the plan. If they don’t, that’s when your fallout is going to come. It’s at that point in time that you as an administrator will have to make the choice to let that person go.”

When asked how she personally would set the stage for a good climate within schools, Bennett said she would be visible and active within the schools and provide an open-door policy. 

“Pat Summit used to say ‘You win with people’ and I truly believe that,” she said. “If you develop those relationships, you’ve got the foundation to grow. That’s just my personal philosophy.”

Toward the meeting’s end, School Board members attempted to dispel rumors.

“There are five people interviewing you instead of six because your husband, James, is a board member,” said Jones. “I just wanted to state publicly that he’s not been involved at all in this process. The only conversation that he and I had was when you applied. He called me, told me that and told me his plan. If you were selected, he would recuse himself from the board.”

Zechman added that Mr. Bennett has shown “a lot of integrity and a lot of character” throughout the process.

Jones asked Bennett’s plans if she’s not given the director position.

“I plan to, unless the new director chooses to fire me, go back and continue what I’m doing in the virtual instruction program,” said Bennett. 

Bennett is one of four individuals being interviewed by Warren County School Board members. A meeting is scheduled for May 7 at 5 p.m. to deliberate and vote on which one will be offered the position.