“Right now, with things in such a state of change, we have suspended having a foreign exchange program,” Janie Snyder, the school’s director of secondary and student services, said Monday.
Snyder said the program, through which students from other countries are invited to spend a year attending classes at Science Hill, was stopped last year because the visiting students were being included in the school’s graduation rates and school leaders were worried their scores on state tests would be included in teacher evaluation figures.
To spend the year interacting with Johnson City’s students and learning the subtleties of our culture, Snyder said the foreign children were officially enrolled in the school, but then returned to their countries of origin once the school year concluded, causing problems for graduation rate reporting.
Once students are enrolled in a cohort, their performance is charted with the rest of the students in that grade, based on the time they are expected to graduate on a four-year track.
After the foreign exchange students returned home, sometimes to differently structured education systems or to countries where it was difficult for school officials to obtain graduation information, they were often counted as students who did not graduate on time with their cohort, lowering Science Hill’s reported graduation rate.
Paired with the state’s recent education reforms, which rely heavily on statistical data derived from standardized tests to evaluate teachers’ job performance, Snyder said the negative effects on the school’s numbers were too great to continue the foreign exchange student program.
“What we observed was that most of the time they had English language classes in their home schools, but when they were asked to read and analyze classical literature and write essays, sometimes it was difficult for non-native speakers to fully understand the texts,” she said. “It wasn’t anybody’s fault — it would be difficult for one of our students to go to a different country and take a literature course — but it reflected poorly on the teachers who had those students in their classrooms.”
City resident Peter Torok said he understands Science Hill’s reasons for stopping the exchange program, but he believes it’s unfortunate that his freshman daughter won’t have the opportunity to learn from a peer from another culture.
Torok said he contacted the school about hosting a foreign student next year, but was informed by principal Melanie Ride-Bacon that the program was no longer available.
“I was a little dismayed by that,” he said. “If that’s the case, they should be allowed to make exceptions for those students. It doesn’t make sense to me that we would be held accountable for them.”
While he and his family lived in Italy for three years, Torok said three of his children who were then school-age were enriched by attending the local Italian schools.
“It’s a broadening experience to see how other people look at things,” he said. “Comparing other cultures allows us to put our own in perspective, it’s a great thing to do.
“Tennessee is our adopted home now, and we plan on living here for a long time, but I would feel bad for the state if these policies caused us to not be open to other ideas,” Torok added.
In hopes of campaigning for exceptions in the education system for foreign students, Torok reached out to Northeast Tennessee’s representative on the state board of education, B. Fielding Rolston, and state Rep. Matthew Hill.
Rolston responded to tell Torok he would research the matter and Hill has not yet returned his call, he said.
“I’m not against accountability standards but I would certainly be supportive of any policy changes creating exceptions for foreign exchange students,” he said.