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Are there other options to Common Core?

Leaders with three local schools — two independent and one private — say they are alternative educational facilities for parents who want to avoid sending their children to Tennessee schools that implement the controversial Common Core academic standards.

Those options are Sullins Academy, an independent school, Saint Anne Catholic School, a private school, and Tri-Cities Christian Schools, an independent school. Both Sullins and Saint Anne are in Bristol, Virginia, while TCCS is in Blountville, Tennessee.

The Common Core standards, which have become an issue locally and across the nation, were adopted in Tennessee in 2010, but have not been been approved by Virginia. The standards have been adopted in 43 states and focus on English, language arts, literacy and math, according to the Common Core website.

“We focus on what we think is best for our students and we partner with our families to educate them in the way that we see fit,” said Chris Rehm, Sullins Academy head of school. “We’re mindful of Common Core. We’re mindful, since we’re in Virginia, of the Standards of Learning, but at the end of the day we really focus on what we feel is most appropriate.”

Constitutionally, Sullins Academy President Ron Sykes said, the federal government has no role in education. “That was one of the rights unspoken, therefore left to the states who give it to the localities,” he said. “The more that federal money is put into education to try to raise standards the more standardized that’s going to become. We do not accept federal money. We are self-supported and we’re therefore free to determine which pieces of the Common Core that we believe are appropriate for our students.”

The academy’s curriculum is created “in house” according to Becca Powers, director of admissions and marketing. Powers, Sykes and Rehm all agree that Common Core must be kept in mind because a lot of students leave the academy to attend public schools in high school — the 28 graduates of 2013 went to eight public schools in the area. Rehm said that the academy’s curriculum is typically more advanced. “Overall, our students are getting a lot of credits by the time they enter high school. …We’re challenging them in ways above and beyond what other schools in the area might be able to do.”

Teachers are able to enjoy teaching, Sykes said, because there is not the stress of completing a set amount of units of curriculum by a certain time. Parent and Sullins Academy board Chairman Courtney Cavatoni agrees. “I think one of the things that Common Core can do is require a lot more testing and more frequent testing and I think that tends to put additional stress on teachers, which puts stress on the students and I think that it creates a different environment than what we have here,” she said.

All four agreed that Common Core should be paid attention to because, Sykes said, the PSAT and SAT tests may be aligned with the curriculum in the future.

“We would not be doing our jobs if we didn’t prepare our kids to succeed on the SAT so we have to give them those foundations, but we’re not limited to just doing whatever Common Core says,” he said.

Powers said that she has spoken with a Sullins Academy elementary school teacher who taught in public schools during the first year that Tennessee adopted Common Core. The teacher said that the standards gave lots of different tools to teach math concepts to students who are not “math brained” and she has used some of those concepts to help students, but they are only an option.

Jubal Yennie, Sullivan County’s director of schools, said that there has been an evolution of increasing standards in the past 10 to 15 years.

“This is that next evolution of raising standards so that we are challenging students more rigorously to learn,” he said. “We’re asking them to do more. …Over the past four years, we have improved initially drastically and incrementally we’ve continued to improve both in reading and math since 2010.”

An example that Yennie gave of more “rigorous” standards is that children are asked to cite evidence from what they read to write from a research standpoint instead of writing an essay about what they did over the summer or to describe a rainbow.

“Students are responding to that very effectively,” he said. “Teachers have embraced the new standards very well. They’ve readily recognized the challenge it presents their students, but they’ve also readily recognized that it’s important for students. …Students and teachers have worked very hard and we’re getting results.” Yennie said that there are a lot of arguments about Common Core, but he believes that a lot of them don’t center on the standards themselves.

“The message I would share with parents at this point is that the governor has called for a re-evaluation,” he said. “They’re asking for public input on this.”

According to a document released by Gov. Bill Haslam last week, a Tennessee Education Standards Review will take place as “part of the state’s effort to continue its historic progress in K-12 academic achievement.”

The document states that the review came about due to recent “considerable discussion” regarding English, language arts and mathematics standards across the nation and in Tennessee. The review will allow Tennesseans to provide feedback via Participants will be able to make comments on particular standards and offer recommendations for revisions, additions or deletions.

Information about Common Core implementation in Sullivan County is available at

Cavatoni believes that Sullins Academy students are prepared to succeed in any environment, including at schools that use Common Core standards. “It’s about educating the whole child — things such as art, music, foreign language, physical education,” she said. “I think kids learn life skills through those additional curricular add-ons that are important to them — perseverance, dedication, poise under pressure, being able to get up and perform in front of others. So we not only have those additional aspects of education, but then we take it even further. …Our typical student leaves here with not only a great academic underpinning, but also the ability to get up and speak in front of a class, good study skills, I think an appreciation of the world in which they live and being a good community citizen.”

Melody Archer, Tri-Cities Christian Schools’ administrator, said that the goal of Common Core is to bring state curriculums into alignment. The school’s faculty decided not to adopt the standards.

“Our faculty cross-referenced our learning outcome standards with the Common Core state standards and found we meet or exceed the state standards in all areas,” she said. “The CCSS will be viewed as an informational document used to ensure that our students are prepared in comparison with national norms and for tests such as the ACT.”

The curriculum used at Saint Anne Catholic School comes from the Diocese of Richmond.

“Our curriculum addresses the total child,” said Pat Johnson, a fourth-grade teacher and vice principal. “We address not only the academics, but we address the physical, the spiritual. We address the entire entity of the child.”

Principal Richard Fenchak said that he believes Common Core was a result of students nationwide not testing as successfully as students in other countries.

“Our test scores are consistently way above the national average, so if it’s [curriculum] not broken, then why mess with it,” he said. “… Common Core, as I understand, is not a curriculum; it’s a set of standards and our standards are different so if they want to have it in the public schools we want to be aware of what they’re doing.”

Billie Schneider, coordinator of Saint Anne Middle School and teacher of language arts literature, said she believes the “good parts” of Common Core will be part of every curriculum.

“Any strong curriculum is going to have commonalities, but as far as taking on the whole package I don’t see that we would do that,” she said. | 276-645-2511 | Twitter: @BHC_Lurah |

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