FC Schools: Graduation Requirements, Raises, Therapy Dogs

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

At the March 11 meeting the Franklin County School Board approved changes to graduation requirements, discussed teacher raises recommended by PECCA, and considered a policy allowing therapy dogs. The board also learned about proposed amendments to the Education Freedom Scholarship Act and welcomed Roger Alsup, former Franklin County High School principal, as Human Resources Supervisor.

The change to the graduation policy allows students to substitute marching band, cheerleading, or an athletic program for the required one-half (1/2) credit in physical education. “It doesn’t make sense a student in a semester of football should be required to take a half semester of PE, as well,” Alsup said, speaking from the perspective of a former high-school principal. “In addition, it allows students to take another class [in the PE time slot] that could be content based,” said Director of Schools Cary Holman. Alsup did not anticipate the change significantly impacting the number of PE teachers needed. Holman pointed out teachers frequently had dual certification.

The Franklin County PECCA (Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act) team consists of representatives from the Franklin County Education Association and the board of education management. The recommended pay scale calls for a 5 percent salary increase for all certified employees and a years-of-service wage increase for teachers who have served 24 years or more. By last year’s pay scale, years-of-service increases stopped at 23 years. “We plan to use the 5 percent increase to build the budget,” said Board Vice-Chair Lance Williams. With an April deadline for budget approval on the horizon, the board will hold a working session April 4, 6 p.m., to parse the details.

South Middle School Principal Tara Brewer appealed to the board to adopt a Tennessee School Board Association policy allowing therapy dogs. Brewer first experienced the “joy” and “calming” effect therapy dogs could bring to a classroom when teaching special ed at Cowan Elementary. Recently an emotional support dog visited South Middle School. “I was amazed at the students who came out of their shell,” Brewer said. ‘When is Bo coming back?’ the children wanted to know afterwards. Therapy dogs are trained to be around people, welcome petting, and tolerate noise, chaos, and even tail pulling. Research has shown therapy dogs increase wellbeing and decrease depression, pain, and anxiety. Physiological measurement shows therapy dogs positively impact brain chemistry levels of cortisol and dopamine. From a classroom perspective, therapy dogs reduce test anxiety and help conflicted students de-escalate, especially key for students navigating the challenges of adolescence. Brewer told the story of a defensive angry student who after spending five minutes with a therapy dog was ready to go back to class.

Other Franklin County school principals have expressed interest in the program, Brewer said. Several Tennessee school districts have therapy dog policies. According to board member Sarah Marhevsky, proposed state legislation called for a pilot program placing therapy dogs in schools.

Updating the board on the Education Freedom Scholarship Act which would award vouchers for private school and home school education, Marhevsky said the Tennessee House and Senate had introduced 39 and 17 page amendments, respectively. The House version does not require testing accountability for students awarded vouchers, but on a positive note, would mean the state paid a higher portion of teacher insurance premiums and provided for alternatives to fourth-grade retention for students with inadequate test scores. The Senate version would allow voucher money to pay for attending a public school in a different county.

Speaking against the Education Freedom Scholarship Act, board member Sara Liechty said when North Carolina adopted a similar plan, 90 percent of the students awarded vouchers were already attending private schools, meaning they had the financial resources to do so. Liechty also noted private schools were not required to teach Tennessee or U.S. history.

Holman announced the state recently honored Cowan Elementary, North Lake Elementary, and Sewanee Elementary with the designation Reward Schools, the top distinction a school can earn for academic growth and achievement. Holman praised principals Cynthia Young (Cowan), Sherry Sells (North Lake), and Allison Dietz (Sewanee) “for their leadership.”

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