Sohn: Hamilton County's schools inch up; the ranking bar should, too

Sohn: Hamilton County's schools inch up; the ranking bar should, too

January 12th, 2018 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Dr. Bryan Johnson, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, speaks to fifth graders Samantha Johnson, Aida Bautista, Cate Barton and Shadi Gonzalez about the new additions to their library at East Ridge Elementary School. More than 14 percent of East Ridge Elementary students are English language learners, and their school is a feeder school to East Ridge Middle School, recognized as a "reward" school for student growth.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

A look at Hamilton County’s 44,444 students

› Asian: 2.6 percent

› Black African American: 30.5 percent

› Hispanic or Latino: 11.8 percent

› Native American/Alaskan: 0.2 percent

› White: 54.8 percent

› English Language Learners: 6.3 percent

› Considered economically disadvantaged: 37.3 percent

› Students with disabilities: 12.8 percent

Source: Tennessee Department of Education’s annual Report Card

State education officials have classified the Hamilton County school system as an "achieving" district.

That's good and heartening news — until we realize what a low bar that label entails. And in several key measures we still lag behind state averages.

» Our high school graduation rate over five years has inched up one tenth of a percent from 84.5 in the 2012-2013 school year to 84.6 last year. (Our one-year improvement in the graduation rate was slightly better, rising eight-tenths of a percentage point.) The state's overall graduation rate last year was 89.1 — a record high.

» Less than one third — or 31.5 percent — of elementary and middle school students in Hamilton County were at or above grade level in reading last year.

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» Less than four in 10 of our students — 38.2 percent — were at or above grade level in math.

» Our students' composite ACT score is 19.9, a bare increase over the prior year's 19.8, but still falling just short of the average score across the state of 20.1.

» Our brightest spot is science, in which more than half of our students are meeting expectations, yet they still lag nearly five points behind state average.

Hamilton County school officials rightly praise our student gains, no matter how slight, noting that in the past five years, the number of students participating in the English Language Learners program has increased to 6.3 percent and the proportion of minority students, too, has risen to 45.2 percent.

But we can't have it both ways. If we pat ourselves on the back for "achieving" and insinuate that the achievement comes in spite of what we project as handicaps — like students who need help speaking English — then how do we explain East Ridge Middle School making its way into our system's top 10 percent of schools and designated as a "Reward" school?

The State Report Card shows that 11.7 percent of East Ridge Middle students are English language learners, yet state education officials have recognized East Ridge Middle — as well as Lookout Mountain Elementary, Nolan Elementary, STEM School Chattanooga and Thrasher Elementary — as "Reward" schools.

Teaching students is both an art and a science. We — and parents here — could not nor should not have expected Hamilton County to turn around a sinking program in a year, nor should we expect a new superintendent and school administration to wave a magic wand of striking improvement for next year's scores.

That said, we're pleased to see gains — slight as they may be. And we hope — no, we expect — the bar to be raised over and over again until we are truly serving and teaching Hamilton County students to soar.

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