Unified to seek more unity in public school community

If a new advocacy organization succeeds in making Chattanoogans more aware of and more involved in their public schools, it will have done a great service.

That's what UnifiEd organizers, a group of civic, business and community leaders with the backing of the Benwood, Footprint and Maclellan foundations, say they want to do.

They're not pushing a curriculum or a platform, and are nobody's mouthpiece, said executive director Elizabeth Crews and deputy director Lakweshia Ewing.

Instead, they said, the bipartisan, nonprofit organization was created to increase transparency, accountability, effectiveness and engagement in the schools.

UnifiEd is trying to be the catalyst for a grassroots movement, the organizers said.

"People will bring about a lot of this," she said.

In order for citizens to have a bigger voice in public schools, Crews and Ewing said there are steps the Hamilton County School Board could take, but they will let people who get involved in the organization determine if they want to press those issues.

The School Board, for instance, could meet at different places - in various districts, say - with more room available than at the Hamilton County Department of Education, they said. It could meet at different times, perhaps later than its regular 5 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. sessions, to allow working parents to attend.

Further, they said, the School Board could post detailed agendas online well ahead of its meetings and allow a limited open forum at the end of meetings to discuss non-agenda items.

Those are reasonable steps to consider, especially if they promote a larger public voice in school policy and procedures.

Although Crews and Ewing said they plan to hire a team - at least one per School Board district - of education engagement coordinators to recruit neighborhood-level groups of volunteers, they're not waiting until every "t" is crossed and every "i" dotted to become active.

UnifiEd, they said, would host candidate forums, conduct candidate surveys and work to increase participation in the August (when five School Board seats will be up for grabs) and November elections. What they won't do, they said, is endorse individual candidates.

Turnout for the August 2012 election, when the last School Board elections were held, was 23.4 percent. The average turnout for such elections, Crews and Ewing said, is 19 percent.

All elections are important and the makeup of the board which makes decisions concerning roughly 42,000 students in the Hamilton County Schools certainly no less so.

School Board members and Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith are aware of UnifiEd but have made no official endorsement of it, according to Crews and Ewing.

It, further, is not a competing organization to the Public Education Foundation, they said. Where the PEF provides training, research and resources to teachers, principals and schools in order to increase student achievement, the new organization focuses on building community support for teachers and schools in order that they are better able to serve students.

"We're two of many voices," said Crews. "We each see the other as vitally important."

PEF executive director Dan Challener agreed.

"It's a really good complement to the work we do," he said. It has the potential to "get more people engaged and aware of how important public education is."

Indeed, UnifiEd is the "missing piece," she said, that will add community volunteers to backing the schools already get from the school system itself, from local foundations and from others.

It's an organization through which Chattanoogans who are interested in the schools can become involved, said Ewing, if they "don't know where to begin."

Whether someone is the parent of a current student, parent of a long-graduated student, parent of a private-school student or someone with no connection to the schools at all, "you still have a stake in public schools," she said. "Your voice matters, too."

"To have a great public education," said Crews, "you have to have a great public."

UnifiEd will "increase awareness," she said, build relationships and open "lines of engagement" for the community to be involved in its schools.

We all benefit if Chattanooga has great public schools. How much unity there is in the community surrounding that idea will determine both the future of the organization and of the schools it hopes to assist.