Sohn: Superintendent's 'Opportunity Zone' is a great beginning

Sohn: Superintendent's 'Opportunity Zone' is a great beginning

August 22nd, 2017 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Eighth grader Aric Moses (center) works on a writing exercise in Carl Knight Jr.'s reading and language arts class last year. Dalewood Middle School is one of several iZone schools in the Hamilton County System working to improve test scores.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

The plan offered by Hamilton County's new schools chief Bryan Johnson to bring up school scores in our lowest-performing schools sounds like a winner.

Not only does it include the five iZone schools that the state could take over — Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Woodmore Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Orchard Knob Elementary — it also would support seven more of the district's struggling schools.

"We've got to move the needle for these schools, and we've got to do it quickly," Johnson said last week when he told Board of Education members about his plan.

In effect, the plan that Johnson has dubbed the Opportunity Zone would start serving schools in the Brainerd High and The Howard School feeder patterns this year, providing more staff, targeted support and a heightened urgency for improvement.

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"Urgency" is the word Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen used repeatedly over the past months as she outlined her own plan for our iZone schools. These were schools for which the county had received extra money to improve over several years. But the former county school administration sat on most of that money and the schools made no improvements.

That prompted McQueen to begin talks of the state taking over at least two of the schools and placing them in a state-run school district. But she offered the county another choice as well: partner with the state to create what she called a Partnership Zone and form a separate state-county school district with a board made up with a majority of state-appointed directors. The new partnership zone would have additional state money and likely additional private foundation money.

County school leaders foolishly balked at the Partnership Zone because they chafed at the majority-state board rule.

Johnson, with his Opportunity Zone plan, has tried to thread the needle between local and state concerns, but he stressed to school board members that "this isn't a plan that is anti-the-state. ... This is working with the state."

McQueen told the Times Free Press last week that she's encouraged by Johnson's work and his desire to lead the turnaround. And Johnson's magic apparently worked: The board unanimously approved new positions to support the Opportunity Zone.

It's a great beginning.

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