ROGERSVILLE — Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education, Dr. Penny Schwinn, visited Hawkins County during a principal’s meeting on Aug. 27 as part of her statewide school tour designed to gather input from local students and educators.

“She is dedicated to going around the state and getting input on all things education,” Director of Schools Matt Hixson said as he introduced Schwinn to the gathered crowd. “But, primarily in the last couple of weeks and months, she has really focused on the assessment piece and what we can do as a state to make it easier not only on our students, more effective for our students, more clearly laid out for our students, but also for us as educators. So, I really applaud her efforts and her department’s efforts to do that.”

Schwinn explained that she and other members of the state department education are in the process of developing a new strategic plan for the department that will be focused on students and educators. This new plan will be unveiled in just a few weeks.

Since she was sworn in as Commissioner of Education in February of this year, Schwinn has traveled all over the state to visit classrooms and talk with both students and educators.

It’s about family, and it’s about home“I actually love to spend as much time as possible getting feedback on some things we’re working on as a department,” Schwinn said to the group of Hawkins Co. Principals. “We’ve been trying to spend a little bit of time around the state visiting as many schools and districts as possible, talking with teachers, family members, students, etc. to figure out ‘what are we about’ and ‘what do we want it to be about’ and not all the bells and whistles.”

Schwinn and other members of the Department of Education have used the feedback gathered from Schwinn’s state tours to influence the aforementioned strategic plan.

“What we actually ended up with is that our strategic plan is about students and educators—that’s it,” Schwinn said. “None of the flashy stuff, but it’s about ‘what is the most important thing in a high-quality public education.’ There’s lots of things that play around the edges and sound really great. You can do great graphics and build all sorts of little sheets to send out to folks, but we know what really gets the job done is what happens between every individual child sitting in a classroom every day, the educator who is in front of them and the people who support the educator to be their best possible selves.”

Schwinn explained that, earlier this year, the department also offered surveys through which people could provide feedback. The department received around 35,000 responses to these surveys.

“I read every single one of them,” Schwinn said. “That was a lot to read in a two-month time period — lots of late nights. What we heard is that it’s about kids. That’s all that matters.”

Schwinn also explained that the department recently appointed an assistant commissioner of what Schwinn called “Whole Child Initiatives” in response to the feedback the department received.

“One of the things we did hear in a lot of the feedback is that we’ve got a lot of kids who have very, very different needs,” Schwinn said. “So, how do we support them without having the principal and the teacher be the principal, teacher, social worker, counselor, the police officer and everything else in between? How can we resource our schools so that you have what you need to do the really important jobs that you all have?”

Schwinn even acknowledged that she sometimes misses being a principal and called that position “the best job I ever had.”

“It was the best job I ever had because it was seeing students who needed support the most—we all have those few every year…and seeing the progress that, as a principal, I could make with those students,” she said.

She also explained that, since she has lived and worked in numerous different states, she has noticed that public education in Tennessee has an aspect unlike other states.

“I think something that is uniquely Tennessee is that this about family, and it’s about home,” she said. “That is unlike anywhere I have ever lived. It’s always the first questions that’s asked: how are your kids? How is your family? That means a lot as a parent of two little girls.”

Not only does Schwinn work for the Department of Education, but she is also involved with the public-school system as a parent.

“One is in public school in Nashville, and one did not get into pre-K,” she said with a laugh. “I’m just like everybody else — I’m like, ‘we need universal pre-k!’ My kid didn’t get in either, so that’s just that extra fire. We’ll do another year of that super pricy Nashville daycare. I even wrote my legislator about that, too.”

In closing Schwinn added that, “my job — our job — is to make sure that we are supporting you in Nashville. That we are thinking about you and of you and supporting you in the way that you need to be supported — not the way that we have decided that you need to be supported.”

(More on this story can be found in the Weekend edition of the Review.)