Hamilton County scores $10 million for iZone schools

Hamilton County scores $10 million for iZone schools

February 9th, 2013 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

Hamilton County Department of Education headquarters

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

BOARD RETREAT

The Hamilton County Board of Education will hold its annual planning retreat today at 8:30 a.m. at the central office, 3074 Hickory Valley Road. Board members will not take any action but will discuss a variety of topics, including school safety, progress toward academic goals, the use and acquisition of technology, board operating procedures, goals and objectives. The meeting is open to the public. The retreat is expected to last through much of the day.

Hamilton County Schools will receive more than $10 million in federal funds to help boost the prospects at five of its worst-performing schools.

To keep the money, the school system has one year to show gains on test scores at the five inner-city, mostly poor and mostly black schools.

The Tennessee Department of Education is granting the system about $3.5 million annually over the next three academic years to its school innovation zone, an effort to improve performance at Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary.

"We just feel really positive right now that what we've done is going to be fruitful," Superintendent Rick Smith said Friday.

With the money, the county will offer more classroom time, more specialized programs and higher pay for some iZone teachers. Officials already have replaced some principals and are bringing in new faculty for some positions.

Many of those reforms are by the state's design and are included in the iZone grant requirements.

For decades, states have awarded pieces of the federal multibillion-dollar School Improvement Grant program to districts and schools with few restrictions on use. But now Tennessee will pass that money only to districts with iZones set up to attack low achievement at a group of struggling schools.

The grant announcement comes after administrators spent months reworking a rejected 2012 proposal. The state gave Hamilton County about $600,000 for the so-called "planning year."

This school year, principals who had served three or more years in the five schools were transferred out. All teachers of math, science, social studies and reading in the targeted schools had to reapply for their jobs as the schools look to make staffing changes by the next school year.

The iZone's two elementary schools nearly have completed hiring, Smith said, and the two middle schools are on their way. Brainerd High will see the most turnover. It had a more veteran staff, and sometimes it's difficult to find high school teachers with the correct specializations, Smith said.

"We want the most effective teachers in the district in these very challenged schools," said Rita Fentress, who oversees the School Improvement Grant program at the Tennessee Department of Education.

State officials expect the iZone to be a successful and quick turnaround because it focuses on recruiting the best teachers, strong school leadership and extended class time.

"They should be well on their way to improvement," Fentress said.

She said the iZone designation means those schools will be made a top priority and can break free of certain educational regulations. That means they can pay teachers more, have a longer school day or even extend the school year. And other obstacles will vanish. So if iZone schools wish to purchase new items, such as updated technology, they'll be the first in line.

"They're given priority for [dealing with] anything that would impede their progress," she said.