A public forum sponsored by the Unity Group on the state of education in Hamilton County allowed community members to voice their hopes and fears for local schools.
Issues discussed Sunday at Eastdale Village United Methodist Church included inequity, lack of investment from the community, and how those factors affect the five lowest-performing schools — the iZone schools.
"There will be no educational excellence in Hamilton County until this county takes a serious look at racial and socioeconomic inequities in the schools, and not only looks at it, but develops an action plan to attack it," said Jonas Barriere, executive director of UnifiEd, a nonprofit created to help improve local schools.
Barriere said UnifiEd is forming a 27-member steering committee to work on just such a plan. UnifiEd will gather and submit "thousands of opinions" from around the county, and the committee will draft one or more equity policy platforms. More community feedback will help shape a plan that will be presented to local officials in hopes it will be implemented in the 2018-19 school year. UnifiEd hopes to complete the process by late winter or early spring.
"It's not a one-year fight; it's going to be a five to 10, 15, 20-year problem," Barriere said, adding that the schools will need more money.
"You can't achieve equity without more money," he said.
UnifiEd's goal is to convince the Hamilton County Commission that "it's in their and the community's best interest" to invest in the schools. Spending money now will save money down the road, Barriere said.
Franklin McCallie, an educator and social justice advocate, said he thinks a major factor driving inequity in schools is a lack of investment from community members. He said schools in more affluent neighborhoods are able to get additional funding from the community. That helps those schools afford the extras that help set students up for success.
"It's not because the kids are dumb," he said. "If we invest in the same kind of educational opportunities in kindergartens and nursery schools and other programs, our black and other kids of color would be in the same place our white kids are."
But school board member Karitsa Mosley Jones reminded everyone that the school board was given two options to take action with the iZone schools — to form a Partnership Zone with the state or put some of the schools in a state-run Achievement School District.
State Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, has been very vocal about her opposition to either option. She said her main concern is that the company the Partnership Zone is modeled after does not have a long-enough track record. Empower Schools is a Massachusetts-based consulting agency that partners with schools to help improve academic performance.
"[The company] only has results from the 2015/16 school year, and those schools only have a 19 percent minority level," she said.
Favors formed the Hamilton County Education Coalition in response to the proposal of the Partnership Zone. The Unity Group is a part of that coalition, said Eric Atkins, the corresponding secretary for the Unity Group and organizer for Sunday's forum.
Atkins said the group has spent months reviewing several evidence-based assessments and data.
"We can conclude that models such as Community Schools and strong wraparound support of the IZONE schools is far more fruitful and beneficial to pursue than implementing an untried and untested model that fails to answer key issues such as inadequacy of funding, the achievement gap, diversity, and other relevant issues," he wrote in an email.
Favors said the money spent to plan for the state takeover during the next school year would be better spent directly in the schools.
"This is an experiment, and we're tired," Favors said.
She also pointed out that many parents aren't able to attend regular school board meetings because they have to work.
Sherman Matthews, chairman of the Unity Group, said the group's next step is to reach out to those parents.
"The best way forward is for everyone to play their roles," Barriere said.
Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.