​School Board Discusses RCE College-Readiness Program; Will Vote on Middle Schools in May

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

“We can’t wait until high school to start talking to them about college,” said Franklin County school board member Christine Hopkins, applauding Rock Creek Elementary’s (RCE) No Excuses University.
“My hat is off to you, your team, your school, and Dr. Lonas for doing something way overdue in our county.” At the April 10 board meeting, RCE principal Celina Benere provided an overview of the pilot college-readiness program implemented at RCE at the request of Director of Schools Amie Lonas.
In the continuing debate about how to remedy the county’s aging middle schools, the board declared its intention to vote on a capital building program at the May meeting.
At the core of the No Excuses University program is the belief, “There’s no excuse when it comes to a child’s education,” said Benere. “Every student has the right to be educated in a way that prepares them for college.” Benere cited her own experiences as a high school teacher whose students “knew nothing about financial aid” and as a child whose parents didn’t attend college. “In my entire elementary school career, the only mention of college was by my teacher in third grade,” she said.
Benere and her team of four teachers who attended the No-Excuses training, passed along the strategies and techniques they learned to instill “a culture of universal achievement” at RCE. Armed with souvenirs and memorabilia donated by colleges and universities, teachers model their class’s college of choice with door decorations and the class’s college graduation year proudly on display. Next to the door hangs the selected college’s flag. A “Where are they now?” bulletin board honors the achievements and post-secondary education of RCE alumni, while the library sports flags and pennants representing the nation’s Ivy League schools.
The No Excuses University program focuses on four-year institutions at the elementary level, community colleges in middle school, and trade schools at the high-school level, Benere explained. “If you spend five minutes a day talking about college that averages out to 15 hours a year. If you start in kindergarten, the child has 135 hours of college awareness experience by the ninth grade. If you don’t start until the junior year, the child’s experience is limited to 30 hours.”
“We’re a Title 1 school,” Benere said, “serving children with rough home conditions and many with parents in jail. They’re not getting college conversation at home.”
Copying Westwood Elementary in Manchester, another No-Excuse school, RCE actively promotes positive character traits and students who represent them. “Our whole approach to disciplinary procedures changed,” Benere said. “When a child misbehaves, we ask, ‘what character trait did you violate?’”
“There’s a push at the state level for early post-secondary emphasis,” Lonas said, “but nothing this comprehensive.” She hopes the program spreads to the other county elementary schools.
Turning to the middle school capital building program, Lonas said the board needed to reach a decision before June in order to finalize the budget.
Four options are under consideration: renovating the existing schools, a single consolidated school, building two new schools, or building two new schools, but not concurrently. The cost ranges from $35 million to $55 million.
Sewanee school board representative Adam Tucker said he wanted information on the cost of “ideal programming and staffing” before a voting. “Bricks and mortar is probably only 15 percent of the picture,” Tucker insisted.
Lonas will compile a list of the state approved middle school Career and Technical Education programs.
Updating the board on financial consideration, Lonas said refinancing of the high school bond, which will be paid off in 2021, could result in savings as great as 10 cents on a dollar, possibly offsetting the need for a tax increase to fund the middle school building initiative.
The board will vote at the May 8 meeting. The board meets for a work session on May 1 at North Lake Elementary.