Rutherford County Schools Director Don Odom (right) prepares Aug. 3, 2012, at the Board of Education headquarters in Murfreesboro, Tenn., for the upcoming school year, which begins Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012 for area students. (TMP Photo/M. Kemph)
As Rutherford County Schools continues transitioning to the National Common Core State Standards, newly appointed Director Don Odom said he looks forward to building stronger relationships with parents and the community this upcoming academic year.
"My role is to address any concerns parents may have, listen to suggestions, and continue to lead our schools in an academically focused direction that reflects our mission to empower today's students to grasp tomorrow's opportunities," said Odom, who began his tenure in July after longtime Director Harry Gill retired.
"I am in the process of meeting with principals and teachers, and I look forward to getting to know Rutherford County parents as the year progresses," he said.
Odom has been working throughout the summer to keep the process of implementing the common core program as smooth as possible – a task that requires preparing more than 39,000 students and 4,500 employees for the challenge of meeting rigorous new standards.
For the past several years, Rutherford County Schools has stressed the importance of Professional Learning Communities in every institution, which allows teachers and staff members to work toward collaborative solutions for students.
"We are driven by job needs in the community and student interest areas, which is one reason why we met with the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce to look into other types of programs," Odom said, adding he wants to ensure companies like Nissan and Amazon Inc. can look locally for an educated workforce.
In the next few years, the manufacturing and automobile companies are going to need employees with specific skills and knowledge, and Rutherford County Schools wants to meet that criteria, he said.
"Schools exist to prepare Rutherford County boys and girls for the future," Odom said, noting that between building new schools, managing the cost of health care benefits given to employees, or addressing political issues, it can be easy to become muddled in the various facets of the education system.
"It is easy to lose sight of not keeping (on task with) educating students to the best of our abilities, but that is our first priority," he said. "Everything else is secondary."
In light of those efforts, the Tennessee Department of Education named Rutherford County Schools as one of only 21 exemplary districts in the state last month, an even greater accomplishment when given the fact that it was the largest system to earn the designation.
"Everyone in our district plays a part in our achievements, regardless of whether they are a custodian, secretary, central office employee, teacher, principal, parent or student," Odom said. "We emphasize a team-based approach to education, and it is crucial to our success we continue that strategy as we move forward."
Odom credited the work of those groups as a major factor in the district's achievements.
But even with those recent gains in student test scores and decades of teaching experience under his belt, Odom has a lofty list of issues to address during his first year as director.
"We are a much more diverse school system than some people may realize, so we face a different set of challenges from years past," he said. "For example, we have the third largest English language learner population in the state
… so I am proud of the gap closures we have experienced with those students."
For those students, any increase in test scores is a significant victory that should be applauded, he said.
"Our responsibility is to make sure those students are just as prepared for the workforce or higher education as others, and I think we are meeting those demands very well," he said.
Given the additional hurdles English language learners must face, as well as all of the other everyday responsibilities teachers juggle, Odom stressed the need for parental involvement in helping with the upcoming changes.
The new standards require students to exercise higher-order thinking skills in writing, speaking and problem solving, and parents play the most important role in helping their children succeed, he said.
In addition to the new requirements for science, math and reading, Odom admitted he does wish there would be just as much attention on civics and history courses.
"I would like to see more emphasis placed on social studies because understanding civics - how the government works - is very important," Odom said. "Our students are tomorrow's leaders."