Chattanooga nonprofit plans four-point 'Pact for Public Education'

Chattanooga nonprofit plans four-point 'Pact for Public Education'

September 29th, 2014 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

Christina Siciliano, left, and Rudy Foster go door-to-door Thursday in North Chattanooga to invite area residents to a Community Summit on public education in Hamilton County. The meeting was scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 18, at Battle Academy on South Market Street.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

Upcoming UnifiED Pact for the Public meetings:

• Tuesday, Sept. 30, 6 p.m. at Brainerd High School

• Tuesday, Oct. 14, at 6 p.m. at Red Bank High School

• Tuesday, Oct. 28, at 6 p.m. at Soddy-Daisy High School

UnifiED is a new Chattanooga nonprofit organization that aims to get people more involved in Hamilton County's schools.

Its community organizers knocked on 1,000 doors and made 5,000 phone calls to drum up interest for a Thursday night meeting at Battle Academy, an elementary school on Market and Main streets.

A little more than 50 people came.

"We think it was worth it," UnifiED's Deputy Executive Director Lakweshia Ewing said. "[Participants] were extremely passionate about the issue of public education."

Thursday's meeting was the first of four summits that will result in what UnifiED calls the Pact for Public Education.

The next meeting is today.

The group plans to boil down the input it gets from the meetings into four "commitments" that it will advocate for.

"The pact will be a result of what we learn in these summits," Chief Executive Director Elizabeth Crews said during an interview last week at UnifiED's office on McCallie Avenue.

UnifiED doesn't yet have an agenda - other than getting people involved, she said.

"We want to bring in everybody," Crews said. "We are nonpartisan."

Crews has worked on Democratic campaigns, including those of Mayor Andy Berke and former City Councilman Andrae McGary. Another UnifiED employee, Jermaine Freeman, also campaigned for Berke. And UnifiED board Chairwoman Alison Lebovitz, whose extended family owns the Chattanooga-based shopping mall business CBL & Associates Properties Inc., is close friends with Berke.

UnifiED's nine-member board also includes three Republicans: former school board member Linda Mosley, investment executive Paul K. Brock Jr., and former City Councilwoman Deborah Scott, a fiscal conservative who said she spent 60 to 80 hours a week on council business and was a thorn in the side of then-Mayor Ron Littlefield, a Democrat.

"We need you to either play devil's advocate, or to say 'This is not a good idea,'" is how Lebovitz said she convinced Scott to serve on the board.

UnifiED is about six months old, Lebovitz said, and is funded through the Chattanooga-based Benwood, Maclellan, and Footprint foundations, the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, and individual donations. The nonprofit's goal is to raise $600,000.

One of the group's first actions was to do a survey, which found that public education is residents' No. 1 concern.

"Our goal is to build on the success so far," said Lebovitz, a Normal Park Museum Magnet School parent.

Along with public input, UnifiED says it plans to use "research-based, data-driven solutions."

"This is what we've learned from what you told us, and this is what we've learned from the data," is how Lebovitz described the approach.

The Pact for Public Education meetings aren't UnifiED's first public outreach.

The group held debates for school board races this summer. About 200 people showed for the District 5 debate, Ewing said, and about 80 came to the District 9 debate.

"We consider both of those great numbers," Ewing said of the turnout.

Less successful were round-table events for teachers.

Sandy Hughes is president of the Hamilton County Education Association, which was the union that represented teachers until this summer when changes in state law allowed the district to end collective bargaining. Hughes dropped by a teacher round-table about two weeks ago at Red Bank High School - and was the only person there.

"Nobody went," said Hughes, who likes what UnifiED is trying to do. "It seems like they have a wonderful mission and purpose."

Instead of holding round-tables, UnifiED now meets one-on-one with teachers, Ewing said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com, www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu, twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.


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