The main room at the Bessie Smith Hall has been a great space since it first opened in 1996, and the rich history there is of value in Chattanooga. One driving force behind the entire complex was the idea that black children needed a place to learn about their history since they were not likely to get it in public schools.
So when UnifiEd packed the hall on Tuesday night to begin a six-month study of equity in Hamilton County Schools, it was more than just a great space. It was the perfect place and even among those committed and involved citizens, one had to wonder how many of them really connected the dots between a conversation on equity and it being held in the Bessie Smith Hall.
The thought, preparation and resources were evident as just a few more than 200 people gathered to hear John Marshall, chief equity officer for Jefferson County Public Schools in Jefferson County (Louisville), Ky., speak. The ages of attendees ranged from high school senior to early 70s; the audience was very close to 55 percent to 45 percent white, a percentage that would surprise most Hamilton County residents not living in a Chattanooga ZIP code. What new county schools Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson saw in the hall had to offer encouragement.
UnifiEd can turn out a crowd. The grassroots organization did it three different times in four months during its push to get a property tax increase for schools. The UnifiEd Army is young, diverse, willing and passionate — all skill sets needed to do effective grassroots advocacy. Going forward, if the stated objective of our elected leaders is to influence public opinion here in order to get a property tax increase in 2019, then a UnifiEd army with the right messages can play an integral part.
A person seeking to get up to speed on our schools in Hamilton County needs only to get its baseline information from the UnifiEd website. There you will find accurate, clear content. The handouts provided at the meeting get an A+ in content, an A+ in design and a D in understanding that most folks would struggle to read it quickly. However, one failed pop quiz does nothing to alter the final grade of A for UnifiEd on Tuesday night. While credit is deserving for the organizers, the real winners were the 200 or so people in attendance who received the information. Those people, logic says, will no doubt study the content in the days ahead.
So what difference does that make? Does it matter that those people heard the speaker say that the "system is not broken. It is simply doing what it was designed to do." Marshall also said the obsession with test scores yields a very false conclusion because the scores are always framed as being "HCDE's data." "It's the school system's fault" is what many taxpayers hear when scores come out. Marshall rightly disagrees. "It's not HCDE's data; it's the community's data."
That point was repeated in many different ways. This is our problem, every person who lives in Hamilton County. Our problem. Marshall's point was that it is easy to say, "It is the school system's fault." That is one thing taxpayers have consistently heard since 2006. It is the same thing when people living outside the city core say they really want to "help those students in the iZone schools." Many of us say it but don't mean it. But consider this: Every time we say this to another taxpayer and then we accomplish nothing, overall public opinion suffers. That also has been happening since 2006.
Just like the issue of equity in public education, improving public education overall will not be accomplished in a single meeting. Still, a little more than 200 people left Bessie Smith Hall last night smarter, more involved and believing that they can spread the right message. That is the beginning, just the first baby step, of moving and then holding public opinion. UnifiEd can help, just as it did Tuesday night.
Davis Lundy is a former small business owner who lives in Ooltewah.