Finally - the missing piece to improve public education

Finally - the missing piece to improve public education

June 15th, 2014 in Opinion Times

Public education in Hamilton County is paramount to our community's future.

That's actually an extreme understatement that often gets nods, but then short shrift.

And, yes, we have many education support groups: PTAs and teachers' groups; PEF (Public Education Foundation) and regional groups like the MEF (Mountain Education Fund). We have so many education groups that identify themselves with acronyms that sometimes our news pages look like alphabet soup.

What we don't have is any group to pull it all together.

"What's missing is the community," said Elizabeth Crews, the new executive director of the new organization UnifiEd.

If Crews and UnifiEd have anything to do with it, that's about to change.

UnifiEd, launched recently by a bipartisan group of civic, business and community leaders, hopes to lead a grassroots and community-based effort to improve public education in Hamilton County.

Crews and Deputy Executive Director Lakweshia Ewing say UnifiEd will hire community organizers and then focus on creating neighborhood-level teams of volunteers to support their local schools, educate the public on challenges and opportunities in the schools and support leaders who make education a priority.

This is a long-needed change in Chattanooga and Hamilton County - something to get all the groups talking together about ways to influence and improve education here.

Dan Challener, president of PEF, says the new group will be a "really good complement to the work that we do ... to strengthen education."

PEF works with teachers, principals and students, whereas UnifiEd will work more with the community.

"There's a lot of overlap, but I think that's good," Challener said. "We have the same mission and goals, but different strategies."

How can a grassroots effort in education influence things here?

For starters, it can galvanize everyone toward improvement and toward expecting success and excellence. And how about moving the school board meetings to times and locations where ordinary parents can participate, rather than 5 p.m. on a Thursday once a month in Bonny Oaks - some 12 to 15 miles from the city center with no public transportation access.

How about a school board web page with detailed - emphasis on detailed - meeting agendas? And here's a thought: an opportunity for the public to address the board that doesn't require almost an act of Congress?

Already the group plans to talk with school board candidates and hold two open forums for those candidates. But the group, a 501(c)3 organization, will not endorse candidates, say Crews and Ewing.

The initial funders of UnifiEd are the Benwood, Footprint and Maclellan foundations.

The board members, too, are impressive: Alison Lebovitz, a television host for WTCI; Tahnika Rodriquez, a former president of the Junior League and a senior manager at TVA; Paul Brock, a financial advisor and former president of the Tennessee Aquarium; Justin Wilkins, a community engagement consultant at Change Driven Strategies; Jermaine Freeman, a former teacher, entrepreneur and graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga College of Business; Edna Varner, a former teacher and principal in the Hamilton County schools; Linda Mosley, a former school board member and vice president at Regions Bank; Jack Murrah, a former teacher and former president of the Lyndhurst Foundation; Rudy Foster, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago and Hamilton County public schools; David Eichenthal, a former CEO of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan studies and managing director at PFM (Public Financial Management, Inc.).

This kind of group and effort is a important piece of making public education work for everyone in Hamilton County.

UnifiEd is long overdue, highly needed and wholeheartedly welcome.