Report: Progress at a standstill in Hamilton County's low-performing schools; leadership to blame

Former Superintendent of Schools Rick Smith, center, sits in his place during a Hamilton County School Board meeting.

The five lowest-performing schools in Hamilton County have achieved little - if any - academic progress over the past three years, and state education officials put the blame squarely on the district's leadership.

Despite $10.6 million in grants to the five predominantly poor schools over the past three years, test scores have not made expected gains, student absenteeism - as high as 63 percent at one school - remains far above the state average, and less-effective teachers are present at higher rates than in similar schools elsewhere, a Tennessee Department of Education report released in January found.

The report tells Hamilton County district leaders to create "an absolute urgency" around addressing these schools' performance, and to consider whether the state, existing charter schools or other school operators in the county should intervene.

Members of the Hamilton County Board of Education have not seen the report, which Superintendent Rick Smith said was sent to him several months ago.

Hamilton County schools' testing in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide:

Clifton Hills Elementary: 3 percentThe Howard School: 3.2 percentEast Lake Academy of Fine Arts: 7 percentSequoyah High School: 8.2 percentTyner Academy: 8.5 percentTyner Middle Academy: 8.7 percentEast Lake Elementary School: 8.8 percentIvy Academy Inc.: 9.4 percentTommie F. Brown International Academy: 9.9Source: Tennessee Department of Education report

The state’s response to individual iZone schools:

Orchard Knob Elementary School: Teacher turnover is a problem. Expand professional development allowing teachers to put the strategies they are learning into practice while receiving feedback.Attendance rates have improved, but chronic absenteeism is close to 20 percent. Look at effective strategies to increase attendance and help families understand the importance of school attendance.Woodmore Elementary School: The school has the most data-grounded plan to address student performance and success, and is using academic and non-academic data to derive a plan to help solve problems like fourth-grade reading and math.Close to 20 percent of students miss more than 10 percent of school days. The school should should develop a plan to help chronically absent students increase attendance.Orchard Knob Middle School: Teachers have specific time for collaboration and common planning, which the administration is working to protect.The school should help support new teachers to reduce teacher turnover and help teachers be more effective.Disciplinary actions, particularly suspensions and expulsions, are high. The school should address student behavior and built a positive culture.Dalewood Middle School: The important focus on professional development should be grounded in a teacher’s day-to-day work.Out of all five schools, Dalewood has the best attendance data, showing that positive behavior interventions and support system has a positive effect on the school’s culture.Brainerd High School: The school’s many strategies are not aligned with the data.Performance of less-effective teachers must be improved.Last year, 63 percent of students were chronically absent and 30 percent missed at least one day per week. There were 328 suspensions, including 12 defined by state criteria as a “serious incident.” The school must develop a strategy to manage behavior and improve safety so learning can occur.Source: Tennessee Department of Education report

*Expectations of the School Improvement Grant awarded to Hamilton County’s iZone schools:

Make progress on annual goals for student achievement.Make progress on number of minutes in the school day, dropout rate, student and teacher attendance, chronic absenteeism, discipline incidences, advanced coursework completion and having effective teachers.Implement the intervention model with fidelity to applicable requirements and to the district’s grant application.*Source: Tennessee Department of Education report

"I have not seen the report, and if it has been released by the state, it is concerning in a number of ways," school board Chairman Jonathan Welch said.

Welch said he will comment further after reading the report.

Just last week, the school board voted 5-4 against buying out the remaining three-and-a-half years of Smith's contract. Members told him if he remains at the helm, communication must improve. Smith agreed.

Smith said Saturday the report was sent to the school administration, not the board. He said several members of his staff have been working to address aspects of the report.

The state said it could take control of Brainerd High School, Dalewood Middle School, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary because expected progress was not made during the life of the grant - which equates to about $5,162 per student at those schools.

Under federal law, the state is required to intervene in the 5 percent of schools with the lowest academic achievement. Tennessee has 83 "priority" or "iZone schools," and many are improving with a similar influx of revenue and support, proving that schools with large shares of poor children can succeed.

But standardized test data shows the overall proficiency rate in Hamilton County's iZone schools is between 17.8 and 29.9 percent. The percent of students scoring proficient or better in 2015 either fell or stalled in all the iZone schools except Dalewood Middle, which posted slight gains.

Last year's test results show nine other local schools tested in the bottom 10 percent statewide - Clifton Hills Elementary and the Howard School were in the bottom 3 percent, and if they remain in the bottom 5 percent this year, they could be eligible to join the iZone.

The report was drafted in response to plans Smith and his team submitted to Education Commissioner Candice McQueen in October to improve the iZone schools this year and next.

The Times Free Press requested a copy of the plans in the fall and last week, but the school system has not responded to the request.

McQueen then assembled a review team to critique the plan for Hamilton County school leaders.

"The team's first reaction was one of concern," the report states.

The report states Hamilton County Schools leadership has an unfocused approach to improving the iZone schools, and expectations accompanying the grant, which expires this year, are unmet.

"The plan [submitted by Hamilton County] suggests schools are working in silos as opposed to working toward a clear vision in coordination with other schools in the iZone," the report states. "A cohesive approach is essential to the success of these schools, and the review team was left with questions about the structure and capacity of district's iZone leadership."

Hamilton County schools Secondary Operations Director Le Andrea Ware, who oversees the iZone schools, said the report provides district leaders with points to consider, but she does not think the district's leadership is far off track.

Assistant Superintendent of Education and Leadership Support Robert Sharpe acknowledged the report is critical but said he values the input.

Sharpe said the district decided when it received the grant in 2013 to give schools broad autonomy to fix problems. Looking back, he said, a more cohesive approach could have worked to sustain the iZone schools' progress in the first year.

The report suggests school leaders work to expand the iZone infrastructure and talent. It suggested a visit to Shelby County to see how its iZone works under a unified vision for its nearly 20 schools.

Some school official did visit Shelby County recently with school board member Karitsa Mosley.

Ware said one stark difference from Hamilton County was that Shelby has a "robust organization structure hugely supporting these schools." More than $6 million has been committed to the iZone from school funds and the philanthropic community atop the grant money, Ware said.

The report says Hamilton County's iZone has nearly $5 million of unspent grant money this year and that $1 million wasn't spent last year. The grant rules say 25 percent of the money goes for personnel and the rest to schools.

Sharpe said the district is pursuing additional funding options for the iZone in the coming year and hoping that some unspent funds can carry over.

In the time remaining, school leaders must refine their focus on teacher recruitment, retention and development, which includes going beyond local teacher prep programs and finding turnaround specialists, the report says.

Ware said the district has expanded support for teacher retention and recruitment, and for intensive academic interventions and on-site support to help overcome mobility rates and attendance problems.

In 2015, Hamilton County schools tested below the state average in every subject but 3-8 math. The five iZone schools trailed behind the county's scores and failed to keep pace with gains in similar iZone schools across the state, specifically Shelby County.

Dalewood Middle School was the only local iZone school to post gains in 2015, raising scores by 4.5 percentage points over the prior year. Brainerd High School and Orchard Knob Elementary's test scores fell by 2.7 and 1.7 percentage points, respectively. Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary remained relatively flat.

Every school besides Woodmore Elementary received the state's lowest possible score for test score growth between 2014 and 2015, as did Hamilton County as a district.

Ware acknowledged last year's poor showing, but she is confident the district is moving in the right direction.

"We totally agree with the state holding us to high standards and supporting us to identify the root causes of the progress dips in year two," Ware wrote in an email. " [W]e do not want to knee jerk and abort all practices, knowing that some have been very beneficial."

Ware said she expects to see progress in this third and final year of the grant.

But Ware and Sharpe also say the new standardized test, TNReady, will bring changes, too. They are unsure how new accountability measures will be set, and how the test scores will affect iZone schools.

"We know this test will be more difficult and rigorous than the previous TCAP," Sharpe said.

The report also highlights chronic absenteeism as a significant problem at the iZone schools except Dalewood Middle.

Across the state, 13.1 percent of students are chronically absent, which means they miss 10 percent of the school year. In Hamilton County, 14.8 students are chronically absent, while the share at the iZone schools here ranges from 10.4 percent at Dalewood Middle to 63.4 percent at Brainerd High School.

At Brainerd, 30 percent of students missed at least one day per week last year, and 328 students were suspended - including 12 incidents that the state labels as "serious."

"A comprehensive strategy for managing behavior and improving safety is needed to ensure an environment where learning can occur," the report states.

That includes better equipping principals to improve school culture and address the specific needs of their schools.

The report also states community collaboration is missing and deeply needed. The Chattanooga 2.0 initiative, an effort to improve public education and better prepare students to enter the workforce, is specifically mentioned.

The report calls the effort an opportunity to unite the county and school district in committing to the success of those five schools, and says children in them need more than just change at the school level.

Ware said her team is taking full advantage of the opportunity Chattanooga 2.0 provides to build collective, communitywide support to improve and sustain growth in the iZone schools.

The report says flatly that improvement is expected this year in the local iZone schools and adds the state "will proactively assist and monitor [Hamilton County Schools] in fulfilling the recommendations in this report."

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at or 423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.