SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Bedford County Schools' nearly 9,000 students head back to school Monday morning with or without a mask and with a new director of schools.
Dr. Tammy Garrett assumed the helm toward the end of the 2020-2021 school year but begins the new semester on a mission.
"One of the things that we're really working toward is our ready-graduate numbers have been low, so students posts-second secondary opportunities [are a focus]," she explained.
Prior to Bedford County, Garrett was a principal at Murfreesboro City Schools. She said she grew up in Franklin, graduated from Springdale High School and therefore has "been a Middle Tennessee resident my whole life."
During the summer of 2021, Bedford County schools had nearly 1,200 students in their summer school learning camp -- a drastic jump from previous years. Garrett said there was a push to help "move the needle for those kids and do some catch-up,” following a year impeded by the pandemic.
Garrett explained how crucial it is in Bedford County to keep students in the classroom.
"We live in a rural county, and we don't have access to internet in which is a huge problem when you're trying to educate kids and you have a large population," said Garrett. "There is a huge push to bring broadband to our area. And I know that state representative, Pat Marsh is really working hard, but that's a challenge.”
Less than 1% of students across the district are beginning the school year virtually. Families had to apply for the program earlier in 2021, and only third graders through eighth graders were eligible.
Garrett said she feels offering a virtual option will remain beyond the pandemic.
"It does work for some students," she explained, "Especially students with some social anxieties, they get stimulated, very easily, they could focus, and it works students who have some health concern, like we have some students with that are, you know, struggling with childhood cancer and the home-bound instruction, you only get maybe two or three hours a week, but with virtual, you get a teacher in front of you all day."
Following a year when many students struggled from attempting to learn virtually and from the distractions of the pandemic, Bedford County Schools are placing an emphasis on early literacy.
The district, alongside 91 others in Tennessee, will be participating in the Reading 360 Early Literacy Network in September with at-home reading resources for students in grades kindergarten through second, thanks to an $80,000 grant.
Bedford County Schools is also working on a tutoring program to be in place by January 2022 so that every student in all 15 schools will have someone they are working with regularly.
“We've not had the opportunity to do a lot of teacher training, especially in the area of reading," explained Garrett. "We are going to be able to offer tutoring, high dosage, low ratio tutoring coming up in the next year, so it's a teacher or tutor for every one to three students."
As of the start of the school year, Bedford County schools were looking for four more individuals per-school to add to the payroll for the tutoring program.
“We're really targeting retired teachers and anyone that would really like to come help our community and help our kids get back on track and advance the learners,” said Garrett.
Another new initiative the district is working on is thanks to a $42 million grant approved for the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Shelbyville to build a new campus in 231 North Business Park. The new 117,000-square-foot higher education center is intended to open doors to even more students as their waiting list is currently more than 500 applicants.
Bedford County Schools will benefit through shared programs for high school students. Garrett said the grant will give the "community a lot of opportunities to gain skills to be in the workforce" and offer an alternative option to a four-year college degree.
"We want to be able to offer our high school students to come out of high school with some certification industry certifications. So we're really working on that,” explained Garrett.
Heading into the first day, Garrett said she wanted all families to know they are supported by the central office.
"Our teachers are ready. We have shown last year that we can do anything, and we want our kids to learn, we want our kids and Bedford County and the State of Tennessee to be the best in the nation," said Garrett. "We definitely know that students will have some social-emotional needs coming in, and we're ready for that. We've put things in place to make sure that their social-emotional needs are taken care of, along with their academic needs.”