Tennessee pursuing partnership to improve Hamilton County's lowest-performing schools

Would underutilized, 57-year-old Brainerd High School ever be a candidate for a merger if the Hamilton County school board considers new schools, combining schools and overcrowded schools?

Attempting to clarify misconceptions, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen held a series of meetings in Hamilton County last week, sharing more about her Partnership Zone proposal for turning around five of the district's chronically underperforming schools.

"We didn't want to come here with a stick. We didn't want to come here with some misconception around what this was about," McQueen told the Times Free Press on Thursday. "And we didn't want this to be seen as us not being true partners."

Despite her words, some elected officials and community members have voiced concerns about the Partnership Zone since McQueen publicly introduced the idea in April as an alternative to a state takeover of the schools.

The skeptics say Hamilton County Schools should be given more time to boost outcomes at the five schools, and fear the state's hand will be too heavy.

But McQueen said something must be done: Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Woodmore Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Orchard Knob Elementary, each with large share of students living in poverty, have struggled for more than a decade to make academic gains under Hamilton County's leadership and rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide.

The 2,300 children attending these schools deserve better, McQueen said, adding that it was apparent in her meetings with board members, principals and community stakeholders how passionate people here are about improving the schools.

"[The state's] role is to continue to say this is about supporting and empowering you," McQueen said. "But keeping that push-pull in the conversation that we can do better and we have to do better."

School board member Tiffanie Robinson, who represents two of the five schools, said the meetings helped people in her community share their concerns and get facts about the Partnership Zone.

The board is meeting Thursday to discuss the proposal, and Robinson said she's eager to hear what fellow board members and the district's new Superintendent Bryan Johnson think about the plan.

"I want us to actually dive deeper and fully understand what is being proposed," Robinson said.

The state has asked the board to vote by the end of August whether it will agree to move forward with the Partnership Zone.

Standardized test scores for this past school year should be released in coming weeks, and unless the schools post higher- than-expected academic growth, McQueen said it's likely at least some will be taken over by the state if the Partnership Zone is not approved.

State Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said she is against the idea of the Partnership Zone and the state-run Achievement School District, which hasn't posted strong results in Shelby County.

"I am very concerned and many of my constituents are, too," she said Friday, adding that more time needs to be devoted to weighing the options before the school board or the state decides how to intervene.

Favors said the state's proposal is just "a charter school without a charter," and called the intervention "a bit frightening." She said the community now is ready to step up and support the five schools and should be given the chance.

"We haven't had anything to galvanize us around our school system in the last couple years," Favors said.

Local education advocacy groups can work with Johnson to develop a plan "we can all live with and be proud of," she added.

But the state says it's obligated to intervene. Hamilton County Schools was given more than $10 million in additional state funds in the past five years to support those priority schools but posted little, if any, academic growth.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who serves on the Senate Education Committee, said Hamilton County Schools has had its chance to improve the schools, "and now a change needs to happen."

Gardenhire said Friday he likes the idea of the Partnership Zone, but worries it will fail without community support. He also fears district leaders will sabotage the plan, not wanting it to succeed with the state's involvement.

"If it's successful then they look bad; if it fails they look good," he said. "They don't have skin in the game to make it succeed. And the sad thing is the kids are at stake."

Gardenhire said he supports Johnson and hopes he'll be successful, but the superintendent can't be expected to improve the schools alone.

"The man only has 24 hours in a day, and we have too many systemic problems in our school system and too many turfs to be protected by people," Gardenhire said. "He has the toughest job I could imagine."

The Hamilton County Commission, which funds the schools, has not publicly discussed the Partnership Zone.

But Chattanooga City Councilman Russell Gilbert is sponsoring a resolution asking the state to hold off for two years. The resolution is on the Tuesday agenda.

Gilbert said Saturday he wants the state to give Johnson two years to show he can improve the schools. He believes the council will support his resolution.

"If [the state] slows it down I think we can have a win-win," he said.

McQueen said in the Partnership Zone, the five schools would be placed in a separate mini-zone with its own director and board, giving the schools increased autonomy and support.

But that would require a change in state law to allow students to be represented by an appointed, rather than elected, school board.

McQueen said she's spoken with Hamilton County lawmakers and plans to pursue legislation that ensures the Partnership Zone can legally move forward.

Favors said she's asked for an attorney general's opinion on the legality of the Partnership Zone, and she plans to oppose any proposed legislation to create it.

McQueen said she will be the one to decide how the state intervenes, and added the Partnership Zone will work only if the school system and state can talk candidly to each other and both take responsibility for student success.

McQueen originally proposed the state appoint 60 percent of the seven to 10-member Partnership Zone board, leaving 40 percent for local school district representatives. But she said Friday the ratio isn't set in stone, and that 100 percent of the Partnership Zone's board will represent Hamilton County.

She also noted the Partnership Zone would not cost the school system more, as the proposed budget is based on the state's per-pupil funding.

"Base budget operations are sustainable and efficient and conservative," McQueen said. "And if there are pieces in the plan we think are outside of that, we would look for ways to fund that."

If extra funds are needed, she said the state could tap state, federal and philanthropic money available to support the Partnership Zone.

McQueen said state personnel are having these conversations with Hamilton County officials because they feel responsible for the students at these schools and want each of them to graduate with opportunities.

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