Hamilton County's school leaders took a big step forward for the students in our lowest performing schools Thursday evening.
School board members voted 7-2 to partner with the Tennessee Department of Education to create a special school "Partnership Zone" that could include at least some of the county system's five priority schools — Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary.
Because those schools have shown a long-time pattern of low performance, the state had given the district two options: State officials would take the schools over and place them in a state-run Achievement School District or the state and county together would create this first-ever "Partnership Zone" for shared governance and intervention to improve the schools.
Dalewood, both Orchard Knob schools and Woodmore have been on notice for poor performance since 2002, and in 2012, they were placed on the state's priority, or iZone, list. All five iZone schools have failed to move off the list, with little to no improvement in the five years since, despite more than $11 million in grants to boost results. For most of that time, Hamilton County's former school leaders sat on most of that money, not spending the bulk of it for special teaching programs and curriculum improvements until the last year.
Opting for the partnership over straight-up state take-over has always seemed like a no-brainer to us.
Yet some board members have pointed to state failures with other take-overs, and said they worried that could also be a factor in a tweaked take-over like the partnership. Of couse, we could argue that Hamilton County has now failed these schools for 15 years. How could the state do worse?
Other members of our school board got tripped up over whether the state would appoint the majority of Partnership Zone board members or whether the Hamilton County Board of Education would appoint a majority. Turf — not students — seemed to be at the heart of that issue.
On Thursday, some board members seemed to want still more time to consider the options — never mind that Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candace McQueen and former Hamilton County Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly introduced the either/or choice five months ago.
The board's two "no" votes on Thursday — District 8 board member David Testerman and District 3 board member Joe Smith — voiced concerns about what will happen as new state and county leaders are elected and as curriculum or standards change next year. News flash: leaders, curriculum, standards always will be changing. They must. Neither the world, nor education, is static.
Finally, at the end of Thursday's meeting, Bryan Johnson, our new school superintendent, advocated for the partnership vote, noting that the board already has established an Opportunity Zone for the 16 schools that need an additional layer of support. He said the Partnership Zone would add even more layers of support for the iZone schools.
The zones can "work in tandem," added Laura Encalade, Tennessee Department of Education Chief of Staff, who represented McQueen at the meeting.
Kudos to Johnson, McQueen, Encalade and the seven school board members who at last managed to inch this long-overdue decision further down the road.
We failed those schools for 15 years — an entire generation of children. Instead of wringing our hands about turf and year-to-year teacher inconveniences of curriculum changes, let's get with the program of helping students learn to learn.