School system looks beyond high school

More than 500 students graduate from high school in Cumberland County each year. 

Some students continue forward with their education, enrolling in a four-year university or utilizing the Tennessee Promise program to earn a two-year degree or occupational certificate at one of the state’s community colleges or a college of applied technology.

But data shows 40.9 percent of graduates in 2016 didn’t enroll in any post-secondary opportunity after they earned their high school diploma. And while the data doesn’t yet include students enlisting in the military or who enroll after a semester or year break, it’s a number that has school system personnel concerned.

“That is 209 students who did not enroll in post-secondary opportunities. That is not acceptable,” Rebecca Wood, chief academic officer for Cumberland County Schools, said during a workforce and education summit held Oct. 31 in Cumberland County.

The event brought together representatives from industry, education and volunteer organizations to learn what each group was doing to improve workforce development in the county and how the groups could work together in the future. 

“We understand our role is to get them ready, and the only way that we can get them ready is to watch the data for what happens after they leave us. Our focus cannot just be let’s do well on the test and let’s get them graduated and then we sit back and go ‘Whew! Done. Checkmark,’” she said.

“We’ve got to see what comes next.”

The Ready Student

Schools systems are now tracking “Ready Students.” Wood explained these students graduate with the knowledge, ability and habits to enter and complete post-secondary education without needing remedial classes.

“That is our goal. We want our students to be ready,” she said.

Currently, the only indicator in place is how students perform on the ACT test. In 2018, 43 percent of students scored a composite score of 21 or higher.

Moving forward, the school system will track how students score on the ASVAB test for military service as well as students earning nationally recognized industry certifications. It will also look at how many students complete early post-secondary opportunities, such as dual credit or dual enrollment classes or the new Middle College program that allows students to complete an associate’s degree while completing their final two years of high school. 

“We’re trying to get them hooked early on that, yes, you can do college work. Yes, you can go ahead and get that certificate — you can walk out of high school with something already in your hand,” Wood said.

ACT Scores

All students must take the ACT test before they graduate high school, and those scores become part of the school system’s data. Tennessee has set a goal of increasing its ACT composite score to 21 by 2020. This year, students nudged the state average a bit higher to 20.2, up from 20.1 in 2017. 

The Cumberland County ACT average was also 20.1 in 2018. 

ACT scores can help students show they are ready to tackle college-level courses and don’t need to take developmental classes before enrolling in their credit-earning curriculum. 

But those scores are also a “readiness indicator,” Wood explained. She shared a graph that showed that students scoring lower on the test were less likely to continue to any post-secondary opportunity. In fact, when looking at the Class of 2016, 77.3 percent of students earning a 15 or lower didn’t enroll in any education after graduating from high school. That number dropped to 17.7 percent for students scoring 21 to 26.

Drive to 55

Across the state, communities have been working to increase the number of adults with some type of post-secondary education: a degree, a diploma, a recognized industry certification. 

In 2014, Gov. Bill Haslam launched Drive to 55, an effort to increase the number of Tennesseans with these post-secondary credentials to 55 percent by 2025. At the time, only about 39 percent of adults had this post-high school education. In 2018, 40.6 percent of Cumberland County adults had earned at least an associates degree, but that number had dropped from the year before, when 43.2 percent of county residents had at least an associates degree. This doesn’t include certifications or other post-secondary education, however.

Haslam and the Tennessee General Assembly launched the Tennessee Promise program, offering last-dollar scholarships to high school graduates attending a Tennessee College of Applied Technology or one of the state’s public two-year community colleges. Students could get up to two years of college paid for and earn a certification or degree to launch their career. 

Tennessee Reconnect offers a similar opportunity to adults in the state looking to earn or complete their degree or certification. 

At the time of the summit, Wood said 89 percent of the class of 2019 had signed up for Tennessee Promise. They still must meet program deadlines to file for financial aid, apply to college and complete eight hours of community service. 

“We felt that might have been one of the barriers for our students to take that next step into college or technical school,” Wood said. “We’re very excited to see improvements there.”

Cumberland County boasts a graduation rate of 92.5 percent for 2017-’18. Data shows that last year, 28.8 percent of graduates enrolled in a four-year college, 25.6 percent enrolled in a community college and 4.7 percent enrolled at a Tennessee College of Applied Technology.

“We have TCAT and Roane State not even in our backyard, they’re in our attached garage. We would expect those percentages to be higher. Our students have those opportunities at their fingertips,” Wood said. 

School-Work Connection

Cumberland County Schools will offer this year’s graduates the opportunity to earn a Work Ethic Distinction. It’s part of a combined effort of schools and businesses in the Upper Cumberland.

“We’re building habits in these students,” said Leslie Eldridge, Career and Technical Education counselor. “If students have good attendance and they’re on time, they’re going to be better employees for you.”

Students earn points throughout the year for maintaining good attendance, arriving at school on time and not having disciplinary referrals. They also gain points for taking part in industry exploration activities, like attending job fairs, taking part in dual-credit or dual-enrollment courses, applying for Tennessee Promise or earning industry certifications.

In return, businesses agree to grant these students an interview — not a job — for any open position the graduate would be qualified to hold.

Eldridge invites local businesses to contact her for more information on the Work Ethic Distinction and to consider signing an agreement as an industry partner. She can be reached at 484-4769 or

The school system is also working with local businesses to provide capstone experiences for students in their selected field through work-based education programs throughout the community. 

Career and Technical Education offers programs in the 16 career clusters recognized by the state, such as business, health occupations, information technology, agriculture and building technology. Students must complete three courses in a single concentration in order to graduate high school.

Robbie Casteel, CTE coach, said, “We introduce this in the early grades, bringing in guest speakers. They may go on a field trip to a business. In career exploration, they learn how to fill out job applications, how to do job interviews. That’s part of getting the student work ready.”

At the high school level, students can take on paid or unpaid internships for school credit. They can be released from school to go to a job site during the school day. 

“We line them up with a program of study — whatever they’re interested in — and we try to place them in work,” Casteel said. 

The school system has a special program in place for its health students, allowing students to earn their license as a certified nurse assistant and work in area nursing home facilities. There are also service learning programs and transitional work programs for students with disabilities. Registered apprenticeships are also being developed.

Students must maintain good attendance in school and complete a personalized learning plan and portfolio that tracks the skills students have gained and the tasks they’ve completed on the job.

In the past three years, 327 students have completed credits in work-based learning at 129 different job placements; 160 students earned their CNA license; and 17 students completed transitional work assignments. 

In addition, the school system has grant funds to help pay exam costs for students to complete a nationally recognized industry certification associated with their career cluster.

“All of this is getting students ready for the workplace,” Castell said. “They’ll have an industry certification and they’ll have it the rest of their life.”

Casteel invites local businesses to contact her about serving as a work-based learning location for students. She can be reached at 484-4769 or at

“We’re trying to get these students focused in an area with a capstone experience and an industry certification,” she said.

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