KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE)- Parents of certain Knox County School students were sent letters detailing that their child’s school was deemed a ‘focus school.’

According to Bob Thomas, KCS superintendent, this year was the first year the letters were sent to parents.

This is the letter sent to Cedar Bluff Middle School parents:

“We work hard to celebrate the great achievements at Cedar bluff Middle, but we’re also committed to transparency about the areas where we need to improve. with that in mind, I’m writing to let you know that Cedar Bluff middle was designated as a Focus School for the 2019-20 school year.

This designation means that our school had one or more significantly and/or consistently underperforming student subgroups, based on test data from the 2018-19 school year and an analysis of school performance by the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE).

Specifically, Cedar Bluff is a Targeted Support and Improvement school based on the following student groups:

  • Black student ethnic/racial group

Because Cedar Bluff was identified as a Focus School, the state has indicated it will be providing additional support for our school.

Additionally, the leadership and Instructional team at Cedar Bluff will work with families, community leaders and school district officials to develop a turnaround plan that supports our low-performing student subgroups and leads to improved performance.

For the 2019-20 academic year, our school is implementing the following interventions to increase student achievement:

  • Rigorous alignment with state standards;
  • Cumulative Benchmarks every nine weeks in academic classes;
  • Use of Mastery Connect to help in the analysis and use of data from benchmarks;
  • Implement restorative practices and introduce ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens’ by Sean Covey.

Katie Dyer has two children attending schools in the district, one at Cedar Bluff Elementary and another at Cedar Bluff Middle.

Both of those schools were designated as a “Focus School.”

Dyer said she heard about the letter from her middle schooler before she read it herself.

Her child told her that their teacher discussed the letter in class, but after a certain part, they felt uncomfortable.

“They start to piece that together in a way that, for many of them, sounds like ‘well now we have to work harder because of the white kids, or the black kids, or the disabled kids, or whatever group of students it is,'” Dyer said.

According to the TDOE, the department provided a sample letter in order to help districts and schools fulfill federal law requirements.

TDOE states that according to the federal law, Every Student Succeeds Act, schools are required to notify parents if their school was a designated Focus School.

TDOE also states that schools must notify parents why their child’s school was deemed a Focus School.

A school is designated a Focus School, specifically a “Targeted Support and Improvement” school, if those schools “fall in the bottom five percent for their weighted overall accountability score for any given student subgroup (i.e. Black/Hispanic/Native American, Economically Disadvantaged, English Learners, or Students with Disabilities) or any given racial or ethnic group (i.e., Hispanic/Latino, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, Asian, and White).”

The federal law aims to hold schools accountable for students of all backgrounds.

Dyer said she understood why the district needed to collect the data, but didn’t think the specific ‘subgroups’ needed to be identified to students and parents.

She said it could unintentionally create bias between students.

“It starts to sound like, ‘well, your kids didn’t do as well, so now we’re having to dump more effort into this,'” Dyer said.

She said that even though some of the ‘Focus Schools’ were deemed that way because of white students, with the racial issues continuing across the country, at the very least the letter should be better worded.

Dyer said she knows the data is useful, but said instead of telling which groups specifically underperformed, the letter should detail where parents can go to find that information if they wanted it.

Thomas said listing the subgroups in the letter was also required by federal law, so the district’s hands were tied.

He said parents should know where their child’s school needs to do better, and the letter tells them that as well as how they will improve.

“We’re going to do everything that we possibly can to provide the very best educational opportunities for every child,” Thomas said.

Here is the full list of Knox County Schools listed as ‘Focus Schools’ for 2019-20 school year and the underperforming subgroups:

  • Belle Morris Elementary: White students
  • Cedar Bluff Elementary: Black students
  • Cedar Bluff Middle School: Black students
  • Chilhowee Intermediate: White students
  • A L Lotts Elementary: Economically Disadvantaged students, Students with Disabilities
  • Holston Middle School: Black/Hispanic/Native American students, Economically Disadvantaged students, Students with Disabilities, Black students, White students
  • Inskip Elementary: White students
  • Karns Elementary: Economically Disadvantaged students
  • Maynard Elementary: Economically Disadvantaged students, Black/Hispanic/Native American students
  • Norwood Elementary: Black students, White students
  • Northwest Middle School: English Language Learners, Black/Hispanic/Native American students, Hispanic students, White students
  • Vine Middle/Magnet: Economically Disadvantaged students
  • West Haven Elementary: White students
  • Emerald Academy: White students

6 On Your Side has also reached out to TDOE for more information about the format of the letter and subgroups listed, but hasn’t heard back yet.