KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee lawmakers are calling the school letters that name specific underperforming student groups "unacceptable."
The letters sent to schools across the single out black students, white students, students with disabilities, and certain school subjects.
"We do not need to pit our families against each other in our school communities," said State Representative Gloria Johnson of Knoxville. "We need to make sure that we're fully funding our schools, especially those that are under-resourced as it is."
Johnson spent 27 years teaching special education.
"To have a letter that comes out and says well you know the test scores were bad because of this population of students, that breaks my heart," said Johnson. "I can think how my students would have taken that."
Not just students, but parents, like Desiree Jones, who got this letter from her daughter last week.
Jones' daughter is a student at Cedar Bluff Middle School
"As if no matter how well my child will perform in school... there's gonna be somebody in the background reminding her that maybe not you but people like you are underperforming," said Jones.
She said she cried when she first read the letter.
"Targeting not just blacks but children who are disabled, and then whites, I'm thinking wait a minute, there's a problem here," said Jones.
This letter was sent to a parent at Sevierville Middle School, where white kids were identified as underperforming.
The Tennessee Department of Education said it is not mandatory that schools call out students by racial groups.
They sent 10News a sample letter template sent out to schools.
"The fact that the state created that template and sent it out with very little guidance is horribly distressing to me. Very distressing," said Johnson. "And I have talked to folks at the state and they said that that question was a mistake."
The template states:
"More information on each of these indicators and the data used to define them can be found in the 2019 Accountability Protocol. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the department is required to use the school accountability results to identify those schools with the lowest performance and the lowest performance across student groups (e.g., individual racial/ethnic student groups, students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged, and English learners). These schools will receive additional supports from the department."
It does not state that the schools must classify that identified student group to students or parents.
"How can I help my school, and how can we help change this? That's what we need to be focused on and not the finger pointing," said Johnson.
Jones was upset by the letter, but now has it hanging on her fridge. She's choosing to use it as a teaching experience.
"It's a reminder for us to say, you know what? No matter what people may think of you, you're gonna rise above it. You deserve better than that. You are better than that," said Jones.
This is the first year letters were sent out to schools classified as comprehensive support and improvement (CSI)/priority, targeted support and improvement (TSI), and additional targeted support and improvement (ATSI).
The state said in a quote:
"The sample letter is designed to let parents know which student groups are being underserved and provide details about how the additional funding they receive will be used to address those needs. It’s important to note that while TDOE provides this guidance, the department has no role in drafting the letters that are sent out."