Sohn: Let's turn our children's bleak future sunny

Sohn: Let's turn our children's bleak future sunny

March 19th, 2017 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 2/21/17. Sy'Taishia Eberhardt assembles a "plant cell" in Susan Dorsa's fourth grade class at Barger Academy last month as they learned about about plant cell structure using the Science Sparks! pilot curriculum which Dorsa helped develop. More than 80 teachers across the district were given nine weeks worth of science lessons and all the supplies they need to make them hands-on. The pilot is one of the ways Hamilton County's school system is working to better engage students and teachers.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

It probably was no surprise to the parents in Hamilton County that last week's two-hour-plus joint meeting of the school board and County Commission resulted only in the agreement to schedule a second meeting.

After all, this is the school board that has let our school system flail with little leadership for almost a full year before hiring a superintendent search firm. This also is the board that had to be pushed time and again to give county commissioners' priority lists for new school construction and school maintenance needs.

After all, this is the school system led by two people — Kirk Kelly, now interim superintendent, and Jill Levine, now chief academic officer — who have had difficulty prioritizing and implementing a plan state officials could have faith in to turn around our five lowest-performing schools. Those schools thankfully now are expected to receive help with state intervention.

And after all, this is the County Commission that doesn't have the backbone to tell residents and voters that after 12 years without a tax increase for schools, we need one. And it's the same County Commission that also must wrestle with whether — and how — to build a new jail. County Mayor Jim Coppinger insists that funding for schools versus a new jail shouldn't be grouped together. Surely commissioners know that investing in education facilities and programs is the most significant way to stop our schools-to-jail pipeline.

But let's give praise for small miracles. Finally, for the first time since last year, those groups met together. And, praise be, they have agreed to meet together again.

Next time, we want them to put on their "problem-solver" hats.

There is much at stake here in Hamilton County — the future of about 43,000 children. Our children.

On the bright side, we have many assets to help those school and elected leaders — if they will accept the support.

Other community leaders have put hours and hours into Chattanooga 2.0 — a business and community movement to compile data, resources and ideas to turn around not just our five priority iZone schools (those in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state) but all of our schools.

We also have assets at the state level. Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was here recently to talk about her hopes for our schools and to urge the community and school district "to be involved and collaborative" as Tennessee looks at options for Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary.

Over the past four years the state has pumped more than $11 million into those schools and expected our school board and school system to use that extra money to implement needed changes and programs to bring up school scores and academic growth. More than a year ago the state warned former Superintendent Rick Smith the iZone schools were not making expected improvements. A state report detailed the lack of academic progress over the previous three years and placed the blame squarely on the district's leadership, making it clear that the district failed to spend more than $1 million of the $11 million during the three-year grant cycle.

McQueen said Interim Superintendent Kelly has tried to use the remaining money this school year, but six months of urgency can't make up for years of neglect. The lack of progress since 2012 means all five schools qualify for rigorous state intervention.

"This is a moment where the community has to look at options and opportunities," McQueen said. "Let's be good-will people, come to the table, look at those options and say, 'What's going to be the best way for our community to serve all kids?'"

Kelly and Levine want more time, but that's not realistic. What we've been doing isn't working, and those interim system leaders are not newcomers here. Kelly for years was in charge of testing and accountability. Levine had been a long-time Hamilton County principal.

Only 40 percent of our children are kindergarten ready. Only 40 percent of our third-graders can read at grade level. Only 38 percent of our young adults in the workforce have some sort of technical training or any kind of college degree, and our new employers say they have 15,000 jobs they can't fill with local people because our high school graduates aren't jobs-ready. None of this happened overnight.

We must welcome new vision and help — from the state, from Chattanooga 2.0, from independent budget researchers looking at how we collect and spend education dollars, from other systems doing it right, from new eyes with new vision, from anybody anyplace — even if it hurts our pride.

These are our kids whose bleak futures must be made sunny. We need to own this problem.

Please leaders: Prove your leadership. Come back to the table — again and again — with collaborative and problem-solver mindsets.

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