UnifiEd launching plan to address Hamilton County school inequalities

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 8/3/16. Jonas Barriere speaks about taking over for former Elizabeth Crews, Executive Director of UnifiEd, and what his plans are for the organization.
Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 8/3/16. Jonas Barriere speaks about taking over for former Elizabeth Crews, Executive Director of UnifiEd, and what his plans are for the organization.

If you go

The APEX Project launch will be held Aug. 1 from 5:30 to 8 p.m at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, 200 E. M.L. King Blvd. Admission is free. Dinner is provided, but space is limited and registration is required.Register by visiting : unifi-ed.org/apexlaunch

Disparities across Hamilton County's 79 schools affect students from the northern tip of the county in Sale Creek to the suburbs in East Brainerd and the city's urban core.

While some students attend schools with few advanced courses and a large share of new teachers, others in a neighboring ZIP code may enjoy the most seasoned educators and exponentially more resources. The disparities have existed for years, but the county has never developed a plan to address the differences and ensure that all students have what they need to be successful.

"We hear over and over that our schools are inequitable," said Jonas Barriere, executive director of UnifiEd, a local education advocacy nonprofit.

So UnifiEd is launching APEX, an Action Plan for Educational Excellence, Barriere said.

"[Inequities] have been addressed in other cities and they are not being addressed here," he said. "Our plan is to address inequities in Hamilton County Schools and ensure there is a plan for our schools to continually address them."

The APEX project will be launched Aug. 1 during a free community event. John Marshall, chief equity officer for Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky, will speak and help facilitate small, group discussions.

Marshall has been recognized nationally for his work in Jefferson County, which includes Louisville, as the school district and community work to confront racial inequities. Marshall is known for not shying away from discussions about why some groups of students struggle while others thrive, and for implementing strategies across the school district to help disadvantaged students be successful in school.

Natalie Cook, communications director for UnifiEd, said she hopes people attending the event will learn about Jefferson County's strategies to make public schools more equitable, as well as finding out about the APEX project and ways to be involved in coming months.

After the Aug. 1 event, UnifiEd will establish a 27-member steering committee with three representatives from each of the county's nine districts. By February, UnifiEd plans to release an equity policy platform they hope local officials will implement.

Ashley Conrad, director of policy and research for UnifiEd, said APEX's purpose is not just to close academic achievement gaps between groups of students but to boost outcomes for all.

"It's really about the success of every single student and giving them what they need to be successful," she said.

Hamilton County students working with UnifiEd have spent time this summer, and will continue this fall, researching disparities between schools.

Conrad said UnifiEd is specifically looking for strategies to reduce the number of schools with high student poverty rates, along with disparities in discipline, teacher experience and demographics, funding, class offerings and HOPE scholarship eligibility. All these factors affect achievement and opportunity, she added.

Edna Varner, a retired educator and a member of the UnifiEd board, said in her 45 years working in Hamilton County Schools she's seen the impact of inequities on generations of children.

"We've needed a grassroots effort to solve these big issues, that brings together perspectives and voices as diverse as the population of Hamilton County," Varner said. "Now is the time to create, implement, and enforce an action plan that ensures an excellent education for all students."

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

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