Cook: The most important place in Hamilton County

Cook: The most important place in Hamilton County

November 19th, 2017 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

People listen as Hamilton County Schools superintendent Bryan Johnson gives a "State of Our Schools" address to the Hamilton County Council of PTAs in the Hamilton County Department of Education board room on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Three questions.

Only three.

UnifiEd, a community-led coalition of parents, teachers and citizens, has created a tiny but crucial three-question survey for anyone who cares about local schools.

It's a first step of APEX, or Action Plan for Educational Excellence, and the survey answers — due midnight Monday — will be used by UnifiEd to create policy proposals for our public schools. UnifiEd folks will then tour the county — in a yellow school bus, of course — discussing these proposals with all of us, before presenting them to the local powers that be.

Your voice matters. The more surveys, the better. So I'll go first. The survey — found at unifi-ed.org/apex — is below. UnifiEd's questions are bold; my answers follow.

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

More Info

To Participate in the survey, visit www.unifi-ed.org/apex

Would you like us to know anything about you or your background?

I am a third-generation teacher who went to public schools and has taught for nearly 15 years in private, or independent, schools. I've taught at three levels — middle, high school and university.

I believe classrooms are the most important places in Hamilton County.

In your personal experience or understanding of Hamilton County Public Schools, what do you identify as three equity issues that need to be addressed?

Let me answer your question with a question of my own.

What is the purpose of public education in Chattanooga?

Is it to babysit? To train for the workforce? Is it to maintain the status quo?

Is it to empower? To democratize? To transform?

Why do we have schools? Legally they're required, but what's the philosophy behind the law?

I don't think we've ever really answered this question as a city. Perhaps it's time we do.

We all know that when ZIP codes change, so do the odds for student success. (My friend Ken Chilton calls it educational apartheid.) You asked for three inequities. I could list dozens.

But one matters most.

The inequity of vision.

For some, high school was one long yawn, a Breakfast Club-waste-of-time. If this is your experience, it's hard to have a vision of the importance of schools; it's hard to fight for something you don't fully believe in.

But.

When we begin to see public schools as the most vital places in the county

When we begin to view public school teachers as educational first responders, the leaven of this county's future

When we begin to behold the tragic and depressed message that sloppy underfunding, political in-fighting, screwed-up testing, overcrowded classrooms, leaky roofs, broken A/C units, fourth-class athletic fields and irrelevant state mandates send into the hearts and minds of our students

When we begin to see the daily trauma that some children bring into the classroom, trailing them like shadows

When we begin to behold the spiritual truth that what happens in the classrooms in Orchard Knob affects classrooms on Signal Mountain and vice versa

When we begin to see that education is freedom, democracy and power

Then we begin to act.

And our action is rooted in love.

For teachers. Kids. Administrators. Classroom magic.

Some folks in the county want to opt out of the school district. To form their own. That's one vision; I believe a misguided one.

Instead, we could realize the honor and privilege of participating in the grand education of all county children. We see that opting in is better than opting out.

Am I hypocritical for writing this while teaching at an independent school? Perhaps. But solving our educational crisis will take everyone. Even if it's messy.

All our inequities boil down to vision. We fund what we love. We love what we believe in. We believe in what we can see.

What do you envision as solutions?

Hire the best teachers in the nation. More than tourism, more than foreign investment, the county should recruit and solicit the finest American teachers. Why? Because dedicated, expert public school teachers are stronger than all the inequities we face.

And pay them well.

Prevent burnout. Limit class sizes. Reduce teaching loads. And paperwork. And the bull——. (I know of one young teacher who walks on water; she was fabulous. Teaching at an elementary school here, she left after one semester. Not because of the kids. But because of the dysfunctional adults around here.)

Then, elect local candidates who love public schools.

Then, go talk to Dr. Elaine Swafford.

She's the backbone of Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, the phoenix of our public schools. She's a celebrated leader known coast to coast. (When was the last time the school board recognized her?)

Finally, ask a public school teacher.

They have many answers to the questions we face.

And UnifiEd?

Thank you.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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