Hamilton County Schools superintendent presents plan for 12 low-performing schools

New Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson speaks at a welcome reception hosted by the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga, Chattanooga 2.0, and UnifiEd at Bessie Smith Cultural Center on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Johnson takes the helm as Hamilton County faces the potential state takeover of five low performing schools.

The Opportunity Zone schools:

Brainerd HighDalewood MiddleHardy ElementaryWoodmore ElementaryBarger ElementaryHoward HighEast Lake MiddleOrchard Knob ElementaryCalvin Donaldson ElementaryClifton Hills ElementaryEast Lake ElementaryOrchard Knob Middle

Hamilton County Schools' new Superintendent Bryan Johnson announced his plan to launch an Opportunity Zone to support 12 of the district's struggling schools Thursday night.

"We've got to move the needle for these schools, and we've got to do it quickly," Johnson said. "And not just do it quickly in a one-time way, but do it in a way that is sustainable over time."

The zone will start serving schools in the Brainerd High and The Howard School feeder patterns this year, he said, providing more staff, targeted support and a heightened urgency for improvement.

Last month, Johnson told the board he wanted time to talk to the state before any decision was made about its proposed Partnership Zone, which would involve the state working alongside the district to improve its five iZone schools, also known as priority schools. The state proposed that plan in April as an alternative to state takeover of at least some of the schools.

The iZone schools - Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Woodmore Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Orchard Knob Elementary - are included in the Opportunity Zone and may be supported at a deeper level through a partnership with the state, Johnson said.

The state says it's still required to intervene in the five schools, as they've struggled for more than a decade to post academic gains, but is supportive of Johnson's desire to work aggressively and boost student outcomes through the Opportunity Zone.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told the Times Free Press Thursday she's encouraged by Johnson's work developing a plan and his desire to lead the turnaround work.


2001: The state identifies 11 Hamilton County schools as “in need of improvement.” The list includes Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary and Woodmore Elementary.2012: The Tennessee Department of Education identifies the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide. The state terms the schools “priority schools” and the list includes Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Woodmore Elementary and Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy.Spring 2013: Hamilton County Schools receives a three-year School Improvement Grant to support its five priority schools, also known as iZone schools — Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary and Woodmore Elementary — totaling more than $10 million.Fall 2013: Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy receives honors for strong academic improvement and moves off the state’s priority schools list. The other five Hamilton County Schools remain on the list.January 2016: The state sends a report to Hamilton County Schools notifying leaders the district’s five iZone schools are not making expected progress, placing blame squarely on the district’s leadership.Fall 2016: The state threatens to take over at least some of Hamilton County’s iZone schools if academic gains are not made.Spring 2017: The state proposes working with Hamilton County Schools through a “Partnership Zone” to support the five iZone schools as an alternative to takeover.Summer 2017: The Hamilton County Board of Education hires Superintendent Bryan Johnson and he asks for more time to talk to the state about plans for the five schools.Source: Tennessee Department of Education and Times Free Press archives

"The state's role is to ensure we productively use accountability coupled with additional supports to ensure the change that is needed occurs," McQueen said. "For long-term success in this case, we believe the vision should be set and led by the superintendent."

Johnson told the board Thursday night that he's been in communication with the state about the Opportunity Zone and conversations will continue about how both groups will work together to improve student outcomes.

"This isn't a plan that is anti-the-state," Johnson said. "This is working with the state."

After hearing Johnson's proposal, the school board unanimously approved new positions to support the Opportunity Zone, including two community coaches, elementary and secondary directors, curriculum coordinators and coaches, along with a human capital coordinator. Johnson clarified the addition of these positions will not affect the district's general purpose budget and is a reallocation of federal funds.

The school system's former chief academic officer, Jill Levine, will head the zone's work.

The school board members who represent the schools in the Opportunity Zone, Tiffanie Robinson and Karitsa Mosley Jones, voiced support for Johnson's idea to hire community coaches. The positions are designed to offer additional support for students, helping the schools offer wrap-around services and connect with resources.

Steve Highlander, chairman of the school board, commended the direction Johnson is taking the district.

"I think you and your team put together a really good plan, and I hope Dr. McQueen and the state will work in conjunction with that," Highlander said.

McQueen is planning to visit Hamilton County next week to talk with school board members about next steps, and how the state may be involved supporting the district's work in the five iZone schools.

"We have the same commitment - and quite honestly obligation - to ensure that our priority schools are on a pathway to success," she said Thursday.

The Partnership Zone previously proposed by the state called for the creation of a mini-district for the five schools, which would have its own director and board. The purpose of the Partnership Zone is to give the schools increased autonomy and support.

In the coming weeks, the board likely will be asked to vote to approve some form of a partnership with the state, McQueen said, as it is still responsible for ensuring progress is made in the iZone schools, which have ranked in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide for years. But whatever the final version of the plan is, McQueen hopes Johnson will continue to lead the work.

"We have work to do, and it's going to take all of us working together," she said. " I feel like there is a moment here where we can really turn the tide on some amazing things in Hamilton County and the state can come alongside to provide a push to make that happen."

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