Cook: The Hill City 5 and broken promises

Cook: The Hill City 5 and broken promises

February 9th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

That's the number of children in Hill City -- a working-class neighborhood on the North Shore where residents claim an average income of a little more than $21,000 and homes sometimes sell for three times that amount -- that next year can attend Normal Park, an award-winning magnet school less than a mile away.

Five kids. Less than a mile.

Their story is a hard one to tell. It's jumbled, contradictory and, for many, insulting. It begins four years ago. There will be time for questions at the end. Most will be mine.

In 2007, as the Hamilton County school board shut down Chattanooga Middle School, Hill City residents were promised their children would be zoned for Normal Park by the 2010-11 school year. All children. Any children.

Yet in 2010, the school board reneged, voting to zone Hill City away from Normal Park. School officials said Normal Park was in danger of becoming overcrowded. And it was.

With children from all over the county. Miles and miles away.

Last November, the school board changed its mind again. Hill City families were told their children could attend Normal Park in the upcoming year.

When the school board met Jan. 19, listed on their agenda was "Hill City Phase-In Plan."

No one from Hill City had been invited.

"They did not notify the very community members that have been working diligently to resolve this for the last two years," said Rhiannon Maynard, president of the Hill City Neighborhood Association.

She said it felt like a "sucker punch."

That night, it was decided to phase in Hill City kids, five at a time, into kindergarten only. Their application -- two pages, on a green form -- was due postmarked two days ago. Any other Hill City child who wants to attend Normal Park, which hosts grades one through eight, must enter the same lottery as a child from, say, Big Ridge, Ooltewah or Harrison.

By the way, each of those neighborhoods had more children attend Normal Park than kids from Hill City. Normal Park receives students who are zoned for at least 57 elementary and middle schools across the county.

Last school year, at least 30 neighborhoods had larger numbers of children attending Normal Park than the Hill City Five.

Like a confused kid in class, I have more questions than answers.

Why didn't the school board stick to its original plan in 2007?

How can a school give priority -- vast priority -- to kids all across the county but not on its own doorstep?

How much do race and class matter in the decision?

How are decisions made when drawing zoning lines?

And if parental involvement is integral in having successful schools, why would Normal Park not beg for as many Hill City kids as it can get? Their parents are organized, meet regularly and are fighting -- really fighting -- for what's best for their little ones.

"Justice and fairness would be the inclusion of the whole community into this community school," said Maynard, who doesn't even have kids and is still fighting.

Karla Riddle, director of magnet schools, said she understands the struggle.

"Zoning constantly changes," she said. "It's a difficult situation. Everyone wants their child in a good school."

Joe Galloway, the school board member who represents Hill City, is optimistic.

"The upside is the zone has been approved and efforts are being made to work with Normal Park to get in as many as possible from Hill City," he said in an email. "None of this was the case six months ago, so I try and encourage folks to be patient and see what happens."

Riddle said she and Superintendent Rick Smith are working toward a solution. She met with some Hill City folks Monday night.

"What I tried to help them understand ... we have to have a starting point," she told me. "Our responsibility is to monitor and adjust. We have to get away from the idea that it can't be changed."

Hill City knows that. All too well.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@blumail.org.