August 18, 2021
By Adam Lister, president and CEO of Tennesseans for Student Success
Students in Hamilton County are in a season of opportunity. As Nakia Towns assumes her new role as interim superintendent, her transition sends a powerful message that student progress made under Bryan Johnson’s leadership will and must continue.
During his tenure with Hamilton County Schools (HCS), Johnson fostered opportunities wherein every child in HCS can thrive. He championed higher standards, challenged educators to better equip students for college and career, and above all, he emphasized the fact that every child deserves excellent teachers, excellent leaders and excellent resources.
Prior to the pandemic, HCS obtained high marks as the fastest improving school district in Tennessee. Throughout the pandemic, with Towns serving as its second highest ranking official, the district navigated each challenge with resilience. When virtual learning was deemed necessary but inaccessible to some families, HCS facilitated HCS EdConnect in partnership EPB – providing over 14,000 economically disadvantaged students with no-cost, high-speed home internet. HCS was also the first large school district in the state to reopen for in-person instruction, and as a result, students were on campus for 90% of the school year.
HCS recently shared their student achievement results for the 2020-2021 school year. Remarkably, third-grade literacy increased versus 2019 – even while the state average declined by six percentage points. The district maintained its trajectory of improvement, outperforming the state in 24 of 28 subject and grade areas. That is a tremendous result versus 2017, when the district only outperformed the state in three areas.
Maintaining and building on this momentum will take bold leadership and a honed focus on student achievement. The experience Towns brings to HCS shows she is more than capable of doing just that.
Previously, Towns served as chief accountability officer in Knox County Schools where she helped lead the district to revamp intervention practices and earn exemplary recognition in 2015, becoming the first (and only) large urban district in state history to do so. After Knox County, Towns went on to serve as assistant commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE). In her time with the TDOE, she led the design of the new accountability framework in the state’s highly regarded plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act.
In January, Governor Bill Lee called a legislative special session for the General Assembly to specifically address learning loss caused by the pandemic. Throughout the special session, Tennesseans for Student Success worked diligently to safeguard students and educators from the repercussions of TCAP results while underscoring the need for continued assessments as a gauge for knowing where students stand.
The numbers recently released for the spring TCAP assessment results are sobering to say the very least. Statewide, students reported sharp declines in every subject at every grade level. For economically disadvantaged students and students of color, the effects of learning loss are even more severe and are further proof of the tremendous burden we bear in getting all students back on track.
For Hamilton County, significant learning loss was mitigated by its prioritization of in-person learning and resource-intensive remote instruction, but there is still a long way to go. The good news is that HCS is in the hands of someone who knows the right levers to pull. Amid a change in leadership, Towns stands positioned to safeguard the district’s recent success and further build on the progress made. Her institutional knowledge – especially after the past year – will prove invaluable and her history of making a transformative difference in the lives of students, teachers and families in Tennessee will serve Hamilton County well as it treks down the road of recovery.
We applaud the Hamilton County Board of Education for its selection of Nakia Towns as interim superintendent. With her selection, HCS is in a unique position to help students recover from the pandemic faster than other districts in Tennessee. To accomplish this, the board and Towns must stay the course, always put students first, and prioritize proven and effective education strategies that promote accountability, quality and opportunity for every HCS school and student.
Adam Lister is president and CEO of Tennesseans for Student Success. Tennesseans for Student Success is a statewide network of parents, guardians, teachers and community leaders that champions economic freedom and mobility for all Tennesseans by supporting high-quality educational opportunities and working to ensure every Tennessee student has access to a great public education.