State threatens to take over Hamilton County's 5 lowest performing schools if they don't improve

A Brainerd High School senior holds some of the many diploma that he and other seniors were presented by Orchard Knob Elementary students. BHS' 2016 graduating class walked through the halls of Orchard Knob Elementary in their caps and gowns, as a representation of the "vision" for where the elementary students will one day be.

If Hamilton County's lowest performing schools do not improve, the state says it will intervene, Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly told the school board Thursday night.

The state has been considering taking control of Hamilton County's lowest-performing schools for months, as those schools have posted little, if any, academic progress for years.

Kelly said the state is demanding improvement of Hamilton County's five priority schools - Brainerd High School, Dalewood Middle School, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary. If progress is not made this year, those schools are likely to join the state-run Achievement School District.

Tennessee has been identifying a list of priority schools - the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide - since 2012. Each of the district's five priority schools were on this original list and have failed to move off, despite increased federal funding and additional support being pumped into them.

"We have a history of those five schools not being able to move," Kelly admitted to the board Thursday night.

But Kelly assured the board he and his team are working to improve the district's priority schools, which each have a high percentage of poor and minority students, and are working collaboratively with the state to finalize a plan.

"We are actually working to try to get things better," Kelly told the board.

A draft of the plan calls for recruiting the most capable teachers to the priority schools; making sure students receive engaging instruction; and providing the staff of those schools with additional professional development.

Every year the state evaluates the academic growth of each school's students on a scale of 1 to 5, and Kelly said if any of the district's priority schools don't score a 4 or 5, the state is likely to take control.

The only Hamilton County school to move off the state's original priority school list is Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, which received the state's top honors in 2013 for academic progress. CGLA has remained off the list and has earned the top score for academic growth - a level 5 - every year, according to state data.

Each of Hamilton County's priority schools received last year a 1 for academic growth, the lowest possible score, except for Woodmore Elementary, which earned a 3 for making "expected growth," state data also shows.

Hamilton County also has about a dozen schools that rank in the state's bottom 10 percent of schools. They could be considered for state intervention in coming years.

The state says it wants all children, regardless of ZIP code, to receive a quality education and has been putting pressure on districts like Hamilton County to close the academic achievement gaps that exist between students. On the process of improving schools, the state says there are three non-negotiable keys: strong leadership, effective instruction and a student support framework.

In Shelby County the Achievement School District has taken over dozens of schools, and the district has also worked to turn around some of its priority schools through a district-led iZone.

School board member Karitsa Mosley Jones, who represents several of Hamilton County's priority schools, noted that Shelby County's priority schools in the iZone are growing faster than those that have been taken over by the achievement district.

Hamilton County's priority schools, which have also been in a district-led iZone, have not seen the same level of growth as those in Shelby County.

Mosley Jones also pointed out that Shelby County has a specific budget line-item that provides additional funding for its priority schools, which is not the case here in Hamilton County. She said the additional funding is helpful to those schools.

Through a federal grant, Hamilton County's priority schools have received more than $10 million in increased funding over the past three school years. However, the district did not use more than $1 million of the funding designated for those years. The money is being spent now.

School board member Greg Martin pointed out that the achievement district has taken over many of Shelby County's lowest performing schools and those schools' standardized test scores are no longer reflected in the county's data.

"So when schools go on the ASD, it makes the county scores appear that the children are getting a better education than what's really happening for all of the children," Martin said.

Kelly responded, "that is correct."

Kelly pointed out that Hamilton County's achievement scores are higher than Shelby County's overall, but Hamilton County is not posting near the same level of academic growth.

Education officials in the state have previously argued that though the achievement district takes out some of the district's lowest standardized test scores, it also takes out some of the schools in the county that have the most potential to improve and boost the district's academic growth score.

Shelby County has received the top score for academic growth the last two years the state reported data, with the achievement district removing some schools. Hamilton County Schools has received the lowest possible score for academic growth during the same two years.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.