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Hawkins' new director of schools discusses his observations in first month on the job

Jeff Bobo • Mar 17, 2019 at 6:00 PM

ROGERSVILLE — When new Hawkins County Director of Schools Matt Hixson addressed every teacher and administrator during two assemblies in early January, he said his immediate goal would be getting to know the system.

He took over on Jan. 30.

His short-term goals were to spend time at each school, walk each campus with the administrative team, visit classrooms, ask what’s working and what’s not and if there are sufficient resources to tackle what needs improvement.

Hixson, who previously served as assistant director of the San Jacinto, California, school system, also planned on meeting with each school board member to discuss what’s going well in their district and what needs improvement.

A little more than a month later, Hixson met with the Times News to talk about his observations and the direction he'd like to help take Hawkins County Schools.

How much progress have you made in your goal of visiting with every school, administrator and school board member?

I’m still meeting folks. I’ve met with each board member individually, and my next course of action is to follow up with each of the principals, directors and supervisors individually, just to get their take on the strengths of the district as a whole, strengths of their department, strengths of their school site, and note any challenges or areas of deficit they see now that we can focus on heading into next year.

There were a lot of positive results on last year’s state report card, but the blaring negative was scoring at Level 1 overall. That’s a huge elephant in the room you’ll have to deal with.

You're absolutely right. I think there’s two ways to look at student achievement data. One is, how many kids are reaching that proficiency target — meeting or exceeding state standards? And then there’s another way of looking at it. Where we get the kids at the start of the year, and how much growth they’ve shown throughout the year. Both sets of data are equally important. No district is ever going to get to the point where you’ve got 80-90 percent “exceeding” (standards). You may get close to that in “meeting” (standards) which is everybody’s target, but a lot of students bring in things that need to be worked on, so I feel the goal first and foremost is to see where they’re at, diagnose them early on, at the start of the school year, and then chart them on a course for continued growth throughout the year. If we can make up some of that ground each year, by the time we have them three or four years, down the road hopefully they stay with us long enough to let that play out, and all of a sudden they’re meeting or exceeding standards.

What are some of your biggest hindrances to success?

We’re seeing a lot more emotional needs with our kids coming in, mental health needs with our kids coming in at early ages. Kindergarten and first grade have been impacted by that this year, not only here in Hawkins but the district that I came from. We had a lot more younger students bringing in a lot more non-educational related needs.

Did your previous district have a high poverty level like Hawkins County?

Yes. We were Title 1 across the board. We were 100 percent free and reduced lunch.

It seems like there are more troubled children now than any other time I can remember in my lifetime.

I think you’re absolutely right. We are actually working with our Special Ed Department and others at the state level to determine what this is being caused by, and we’re thinking with the drug use that has played out the past several years, we’re starting to see the kids being impacted unfortunately. We’ve got a big enough job just focusing on academics. Now we’re faced with how do we weave in some of the prerequisite skill sets that, when we were in school, that most kids came to school with? The models of behavior. The expectations at home. Boundaries. We’re not seeing that across the board, so we’re having to reteach that. Hopefully we’re getting them in preschool and kindergarten, and we can start to be proactive early on.

And then hope everything you build at school doesn’t get torn down at home.

That’s the struggle. In the future, you’ll see a lot of our resources aimed at helping parents out too. A lot of our parents are young. A lot of our parents, this is their first time around with a child in school. Part of our job, if at all possible, is to team with other agencies to see if we can get that education across the board, not only for the kids, but in some cases for the parents. I think the work ethic is something we don’t always see exemplified at home.

What other challenges have you observed so far that you plan on addressing?

If I really had to narrow it down to one thing now, I think “preparedness” is the catchphrase of the day. We educate and we graduate. That’s in our mission statement. But I think we also need to look at how we prepare our kids for real world work and life situations.

How does CTE (career/technical education) fit into your plan?

In education we typically push for every kid to graduate and go to a four-year university. That’s the model of success for an educational system. But I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we’re not supporting kids who want to learn a trade, who want to go into the military, who want to go to community college and figure things out first. I’m not taking away from tracking kids toward a four-year university if they’re academically ready and socially ready for that challenge. But we should be placing equal emphasis on other alternatives such as our CTE programs. I really want to build on that as long at the board supports that decision.

Have you had a chance to look over Hawkins County’s CTE program, and if so, what do you think of it?

I love it. I was talking with (CTE Supervisor) Wes Smith over the past few days, and he’s got good plans on continuing and expanding our partnerships with local businesses to get kids out there learning real life skills, build upon their strengths and interests and provide our workforce here some suitable young adults who are ready for the workforce. We’ve got another TCAT meeting where we’re looking to expand partnerships and internships with the Phipps Bend Industrial Park. There are several industries there asking for some students who might be able to take their academic classes in the morning and then head over to a plant and learn those job-related skills in the afternoons. If we can do that along with our dual enrollment programs, that’s valuable because they can get a taste of college or work experience while they’re still in high school.

What other observations have you made in your first month and a half on the job?

I’m a big proponent in school leaders setting the tone at their individual schools. What we typically do in education from the Central Office is set out a one-size-fits-all goal. We should set the boundaries here at Central Office of what we want to see improved, like a 3 percent growth goal in English Language arts or 3 percent growth goal for math or science growth. I really feel my role here is to facilitate the overall direction of the school district, but then allow the principals and teachers to get to know their kids and their needs individually and to tailor those goals further specifically for those kids’ needs.

Is that why you’re out meeting with principals right now?

Yes. Identifying strengths and weaknesses at every school and to build rapport. I don’t want to be a director who catches school sites off guard when I’m there. I want to be there regularly. I want to be visible. I want it to be second hat that I’m there walking around looking at instruction.

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