Cooper: Zoning in on education

Cooper: Zoning in on education

October 1st, 2017 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

It may be a little difficult to decipher the zone names within the Hamilton County School system, but a post-secondary zone in which students find themselves with a better education is the only one that's important in the final analysis.

We believe the local school district, after a strong push from the state, is finally taking steps toward that end.

So, for starters, know your zones:

-Several years ago, the state Department of Education tabbed schools across Tennessee which consistently scored in the lowest 5 percent of grades on standardized tests as iZone schools. The "i" stands for, depending on the source, innovation or improvement. Hamilton County currently has five schools which meet that criteria: Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary and Woodmore Elementary.

-Earlier this year, Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen proposed the same five schools be placed in a part-state, part-locally run nonprofit called the Partnership Zone. Its exploration was approved recently by the Hamilton County Board of Education and will need to be approved by the state legislature. Its shared governance would not begin until the 2018-2019 school year. McQueen said the only alternative to the Partnership Zone for the schools would be the state-run Achievement School District, which has had mixed success in other places. The Partnership Zone would be eligible for additional state, federal and philanthropic money.

-Last month, new Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson proposed an Opportunity Zone that would include the original iZone schools and the other schools in the feeder patterns of Brainerd High and Howard School (Barger Academy of Fine Arts, Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy, Clifton Hills Elementary, East Lake Elementary, East Lake Middle Academy and Hardy Elementary). The larger zone would receive more staff, targeted support and have a heightened urgency for improvement, and will work out details to co-exist with the Partnership Zone as the latter is organized this year. Jill Levine, the district's former chief academic officer, will head the Opportunity Zone.

Johnson has said his goal is for the Hamilton County Schools to be the fastest improving school system in the state, and we believe these targeted zones have the opportunity to help make that happen. It seems especially prescient to have all the schools in the two feeder patterns on the same track. If officials have their sights on giving entering kindergarten students a steady track to attend college, receive a post-secondary certification or enter the workforce in 12 years, the county as a whole will improve.

We believe McQueen and Johnson have their eyes on the prize, the prize of better public education for all Hamilton County students and especially those in the priority schools.

What worries us are the turf wars that could break out between the Partnership Zone and the Opportunity Zone, between local officials and state officials in management of the Partnership Zone, and between Johnson's more innovative approaches and the we've-always-done-it-this-way stylings of some folks on the school board and in district administration.

Such turf wars already have wasted more than four months since McQueen presented the Partnership Zone proposal in the spring, which had the backing of then-interim Superintendent Dr. Kirk Kelly. It was important to have pertinent questions asked and answered, but McQueen originally hoped her proposal would be approved in early summer to give the transition year even more time.

Johnson was correct when he said — before the matter came to a vote and when he said he was in favor of the Partnership Zone — that the board had discussed the matter for "way too long."

"For every parent, student, teacher, principal, we need to provide a clear picture of what lies ahead," he said.

What is clear already is that 2016-2017 standardized test results at the original iZone schools did not improve enough for any of the schools to come off the state's list of priority schools. Indeed, some of those schools have been monitored by the state for improvement for more than a decade.

So, choosing a new path at this time doesn't mean good things aren't going on at the schools. It doesn't mean the students aren't capable of learning. It doesn't mean all the teachers and principals are bad. It simply means the problem needs a more intensive focus and a different approach.

Both the Partnership Zone and the Opportunity Zone are parts of that different approach. We urge administrators, teachers, parents and students to welcome them, embrace them and work with them to improve education in Hamilton County.

That's what we all should want.

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