Sohn: New fix for Hamilton County's most broken schools looks promising

Sohn: New fix for Hamilton County's most broken schools looks promising

April 25th, 2017 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen has helped make state educational assessments more easy to understand.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Finally, the cavalry is coming — coming to make a first truly strong effort to fix Hamilton County's most broken schools.

This long-awaited help will, if approved by the school board and not torpedoed by politics, has the promise to be better than a cavalry. It has the promise of a coming together of the Tennessee Department of Education, the Hamilton County Department of Education, Chattanooga 2.0 and an outside adviser known as Empower Schools to develop what would be, in essence, a separate school district of our five lowest-performing schools within the Hamilton County school district.

Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen and Hamilton County Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly like to call this fix "a partnership" and "shared governance."

It's a bit more than that.

POLL: Do you support the state's plan for area low-performing schools?

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On one hand, it's a step below the dreaded state "takeover" of those five failing iZone schools — Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary. If a contract for this partnership for some reason doesn't gel, then the state will take schools from Hamilton County's control and place them in the state's Achievement School District.

On the other hand, it's an incredible opportunity to build an innovative local/state pilot improvement plan with the creation of a special district — complete with its own director and local board. The district would get some additional and targeted state money as other iZone schools do, and perhaps could get third party grants. But ultimately its board and director would be charged with making the tiny system sustainable using Tennessee Basic Education Program funding.

We believe this has great potential and offers all parties — 2,300 students, their parents, taxpayers, county school leaders, state school leaders and local civic and business leaders — a win.

That would be a welcome change in a horrendously unfortunate situation that up until now has seemed a no-win.

Hamilton County's iZone schools and their administration over the past decade have been a black eye not only for the children in those schools but also for the county and state. Flatlining student growth scores pulled down both county and state student averages.

Meanwhile the students in those low-achieving schools contributed greatly to the county's 60 percent of third-graders who can't read at grade level and 62 percent of our young adults in the workforce who did not graduate jobs-ready. Our new employers have said they have 15,000 jobs they can't fill with local people because our high school graduates are not educated well enough.

None of this failure happened overnight.

The failure to help students grow and learn in those schools, administratively and fiscally, has been well documented.

Much of the problem could be laid at the feet of former superintendent Rick Smith, who neglected for months on end to make it known to school board members that scores across the system were falling, and worse still, our five lowest performing schools were not improving — despite $11 million in additional funds from the state that was intended to improve those schools. A state report more than a year ago found that school administrators sat on most of that money over the three-year grant period and had to scramble in the last months to spend it. It's hard to imagine how any amount of money could pull youngsters up to grade level in the final semester of a three-year program cycle.

The state report skewered school leaders not only over poor management, but also poor planning.

Yet even in the year since Smith left the system, our school leaders have seemed still to be in some sort of "we're OK" kind of denial. That paralysis left them time and again with the same difficulty prioritizing and implementing a plan that parents, taxpayers, county commissioners and state officials could put faith in.

While they seek $33 million in new funding, county commissioners and many taxpayers are asking why we should think they can handle that extra money efficiently.

So on Monday, this announcement of a take-over alternative by McQueen and Kelly sounds promising.

We hope board members, county commissioners, other state officials, central office employees and parents will be receptive to it — leaving political egos aside and thinking instead of our children.

Shared governance. Not finger-pointing. A united fix.

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