Trey Duke Begins Third Year as Murfreesboro City Schools Director Building on Student Achievements

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MCS Director of Schools and Student. Photo from MCS Facebook.

Trey Duke became the Director of Schools for the City of Murfreesboro (MCS) in 2021, diving into the deep end of COVID-19 and all of the disruptions the pandemic brought to the educational system. He was determined to work with administrative staff, principals and teachers to find the opportunities rather than focus on the obstacles to student achievement. The system’s mission is to assure that students are both academically and personally successful. 

“At the heart of our work is our students,” said Duke, “everything we do revolves around our kids.” 

Their hard work is showing in the numbers. They had an eight and a half percent increase over two years in reading scores and a seven and a half percent increase in proficiency in mathematics. These score increases mean the 350 more students have become proficient at reading, and about 300 more students have become proficient at math.

“…[W]hich is astronomical in terms of educational growth,” noted Duke.

Efforts in student achievement are the entire focus of the strategic plan that Duke and his team created about a year ago. Called “Empower MCS,” the five-year plan focuses on four areas: Known, Safe, Challenge and Empower. 

“Known” focuses on the non-academic. The goal is to provide all the support needed to prepare students for personal success. This includes everything from after school activities to mental health support to food support. 

A diverse school system, 33% of their students are economically disadvantaged versus Rutherford County Schools whose rate falls to 16%. In June and July of 2022, when school was not in session, MCS provided 52,000 meals to needy kids. 

In Tennessee, they are leading the way on mental health care for their students. 

“Coming out of COVID,” said Duke, “we are seeing behaviors that we have never seen before, and we are seeing social and emotional needs we have never seen before. So, we have made a huge commitment that if we want our students to learn, we have got to make sure that we are taking care of those social, emotional and mental health needs. 

As part of the five-year plan, MCS is striving to make sure every school has a full-time mental health counselor in that building five days a week. That is not a school counselor, it is someone who is doing small groups, one-on-one counseling, working with students who are dealing with depression, working with students who may have lost a family member, and working with students who are having a hard time regulating because of external things going on in their life. 

Last year when they started the program, they had two mental health counselors in the district for the 13 schools, and by the end of the year, due to some aggressive grant writing, they had that number up to five. 

“…[A]nd now, through our partnerships with Centerstone, Volunteer Behavioral Health, and STARS,” said Duke, “I am thrilled to say, three years ahead of schedule, 12 of our 13 schools will have a mental health counselor … five days a week.” 

The “Safe” section of the strategic plan deals with not only the physical safety of the students, but the economic safety of the system as well. 

Strategic plans also call to “challenge” teachers, principals, and administrators to be the best they can be. And they have risen to that challenge. Last year, one of their teachers received a Milken National Educator Award, the highest honor in education, and the only teacher in Tennessee that year to receive one. They also had the only teacher in 2022 to receive a Presidential Award for Teaching Science. They also had the Middle Tennessee Teacher of the Year, and a State Nominee for Principal of the Year. 

“Empowerment” is the last, but most important section of the strategic plan, because it deals with the academic success of each student. Being an ethnically, socially and economically diverse school district means there are additional challenges. 

English Language Learners are the fastest growing population within the school system, at 11%. And 19% of students have a home language other than English. Only 45% of students are white, meaning that the greatest part of the school system’s population are minorities. 

School size also varies greatly, from about 350 students in one school to more than 1,000 at Overall Creek, Salem and Scales, where there is the greatest population growth in the city. This year they opened a new Pre-K building on the west side of town to free up classrooms in other schools to house more of their 9,200 students. 

One way they are helping all students to be ready for the future is to work toward gaining STEM designations in all of their schools. 

“It is about giving students the opportunity to engage early and often in the engineering process to get them … involved in science and technology,” explained Duke. “And it is … about job development. It is about making sure the workforce has students ready for the jobs of tomorrow…we take it seriously here to ensure that students as young as kindergarten are getting these opportunities to engineer, to work, to code, to do robots and to do projects.” 

As of last year, nine of their 13 schools had received STEM designation from the Tennessee Stem Innovation Network. It is the highest honor a school system can get in the state of Tennessee for STEM. 

“Not only do we have nine of our 13 schools with that designation, we have the highest percentage of state designated schools,” added Duke. “We are incredibly proud of that. Our goal is that by 2027 all 13 of our schools have that designation, and to be the first district in the state to be 100% STEM certified.”

MCS is very excited to be leading the way in education in Tennessee, and they want to continue to lead the way. In STEM, in emotional health, and in academic gains. 

The work they have done so far has led to national attention in everything from a magazine article in a highly regarded national education magazine to visits from representatives from Future Ed, a think tank out of Georgetown University.

“The students sitting in our school right now are going to be our future city council members, our future city leaders and our future business leaders,” said Duke. “We are shaping the future of Murfreesboro right now, and we take that responsibility very seriously… We want excellent learning for every student.”

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