State explores new approach for improving five failing Hamilton County schools

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 4/24/17. Hamilton County School Interim Superintendent Dr. Kirk Kelly and Education Commissioner Dr. Candice McQueen speak about their plan to improve area schools during an editorial board meeting at the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Monday, April 24, 2017.

State and local school leaders want to create a separate district tasked with turning around five of Hamilton County's lowest-performing schools.

"The district's iZone has not been as successful as we would have hoped for, and you have an opportunity because all of these students are in the same feeder pattern to do something very unique and supportive of 2,300 kids," said Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

Instead of the state taking over the district's iZone schools, also known as priority schools, McQueen is proposing collaboration. She hopes to launch the state's first "partnership district," which would allow the state, Hamilton County Schools and Chattanooga 2.0 to work together to provide a better education for students attending Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Woodmore Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Orchard Knob Elementary.

photo Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 4/24/17. Hamilton County School Interim Superintendent Dr. Kirk Kelly and Education Commissioner Dr. Candice McQueen speak about their plan to improve area schools during an editorial board meeting at the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Monday, April 24, 2017.

"It would be innovative," McQueen said. "It would be different in terms of how we've done school turnaround in the past."

Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly and McQueen met jointly with the Times Free Press on Monday, and said they're confident that by mid-June the school board will approve the plan, which includes creating a 501(c)3 non-profit for the zone and establishing a separate board. The state will appoint 60 percent of the seven-to-10 member board, and Hamilton County Schools will name 40 percent, under the proposed plan. The board will then select a director who will lead the partnership district.

The plan currently only impacts the five iZone schools, but could be expanded in the future.

Kelly said the plan is a good option for Hamilton County.

"We see more upsides than we see obstacles," he said.

If the board does not approve the idea, McQueen said the state will return to the idea of placing some of the schools in the state-run Achievement School District.

Since last fall, McQueen has been urging Kelly and school leaders to work urgently to improve the iZone schools, which fall in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide in terms of performance, and discussing the different state interventions on the table. And recently McQueen called each school board member and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger to talk about the partnership district.

If the school board approves McQueen's plan, next school year will be a planning year for the separate district, as both groups will work to appoint the board, which will then hire a director.

The state will pump additional funding into the new district initially, and its leaders will control the budget. The director would be responsible for making changes across the five-school district and assessing what individual schools need for success. The district's leader will also be responsible for staffing changes, but McQueen said there are no plans for widespread leadership and teacher overhauls. The district would be established for a minimum of five years.

McQueen convened a meeting Monday with Hamilton County Schools' top-leaders, representatives from Chattanooga 2.0, school board member Karitsa Mosley Jones, State Sen. Todd Gardenhire and some of her staff from the Tennessee Department of Education. Also present at the meeting were leaders from Empower Schools, a national non-profit organization that has implemented similar programs to turn around failing schools in Colorado and Massachusetts. The organization is advising Tennessee's effort.

Kelly and McQueen said those attending the meeting were supportive of the partnership district. And having Chattanooga 2.0 at the table is a huge asset, they agreed.

Chattanooga 2.0 is an initiative launched by the Benwood Foundation, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the Hamilton County Department of Education and the Public Education Foundation as a means of ensuring greater educational equity and economic opportunity for all Hamilton County residents.

McQueen said the state appreciates Chattanooga 2.0's work raising awareness about the issue and working with a wide-variety of stakeholders across the county to expand opportunity for all students.

If the partnership district is launched, McQueen hopes Chattanooga 2.0 will bring a variety of resources to the district, along with holding everyone accountable for improving student outcomes.

Jared Bigham, coordinator of Chattanooga 2.0, said he is excited to partner with the district, especially since it's a unique model like no other in the state.

Since the inception of Chattanooga 2.0, Bigham said the group has been asking the question: "What happens if we don't do something?"

"[The partnership district] is an opportunity for the community to address this question in a meaningful way and leverage two of our greatest strengths: innovation and collaboration," he said.

Kelly is hopeful the partnership district will also provide Hamilton County Schools with ideas and strategies that can be implemented across the county, specifically in it's struggling schools. In addition to the five schools that would be included in the partnership district, Hamilton County has about a dozen schools that are in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide and could be eligible for state intervention if progress is not made.

In coming years, McQueen said the partnership district could be expanded to include more of the county's low-performing schools if academic gains are not made.

McQueen was clear, she expects the five schools to make gains in the partnership district and doesn't want the same results as Hamilton County's iZone. For four years the state pumped more than $10 million into the five iZone schools, which have achieved little - if any - academic progress since 2012.

"[Don't] assume this [partnership district] is something that may have happened several years ago or think it's something we put on the table as a full-state takeover," she said. "This is different."

The new plan is an opportunity to think about what's best for the schools, and McQueen is hopeful the partnership district will provide the accountability and autonomy the schools need to make progress. And she is hopeful that the Hamilton County community will rally around the five schools and the new approach.

"Chattanooga is known for innovation," McQueen said. "... Chattanooga is well-positioned to do something like this."

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