New committee aims to give all students equal chance at success

Members of UnifiEd's new APEX project steering committee pose together after being selected from a pool of 100 candidates last month.
Members of UnifiEd's new APEX project steering committee pose together after being selected from a pool of 100 candidates last month.

APEX project steering committee members

District 1: Lisa Bolus, Suzanne Ness, Steve SlaterDistrict 2: Richard Graham, Annie Hall, Alayna BakerDistrict 3: Gladys Pineda-Loher, Jim Watson, Fran QuarlesDistrict 4: Frida Uwimana, Samantha Boucher, Lili ReynoldsDistrict 5: Jamie Petty, Michael R. Harris, Rodney JohnsonDistrict 6: Ariel Ford, Lorean Mays, Tara VilandDistrict 7: Jessica T. Phillips, Tamarah R. Daniel, Reginald GilmoreDistrict 8: Elizabeth Tallman, Kimberly Mathis, Cary GarrettDistrict 9: Marie Dean, Jennie Moreland, Rachel Turner

After sifting through a pool of more than 100 applicants, local nonprofit UnifiEd has chosen 27 community members to aid in its efforts to promote equity throughout the county's 79 public schools.

The announcement comes as the next step in the education advocacy organization's Action Plan for Educational Excellence, or APEX, project. Launched in August with a series of discussion driven "EdTalk" gatherings, the project aims to craft a policy that would ensure all Hamilton County Schools students have the resources they need to succeed, regardless of socioeconomic status. Once completed, the policy will be submitted to elected officials in the hopes of implementation.

The 27 citizens selected will help lead that effort by serving as the APEX project's steering committee, made up of three representatives from each of the nine commission districts in Hamilton County.

"Our steering committee is comprised of an amazing group of community leaders who represent all geographic areas of our diverse county," said Ashley Conrad, director of policy and research at UnifiEd. "These parents, teachers, students and city and county leaders will be working together to share their expertise and ensure transparency and accountability throughout the creation of the policy platform."

Over the next few months, committee members will ensure the demands included in the equity-policy platform fully represent the ideas and experiences of residents in their districts, as well as the county as a whole.

The group will work toward that goal by facilitating conversations and EdTalks within their communities to determine citizens' priorities; sharing their experiences with inequities with other members of the committee; learning about the school system and visiting county schools; and working alongside UnifiEd to generate student-focused solutions to be built into the policy platform, which is expected to be released in February 2018.

Steering committee member Annie Hall, who formerly served as a member of the Hamilton County school board, pointed to the two high schools in her area, District 2, as easy indicators of the inequities that already exist between local institutions due to student demographics.

According to data compiled from the Tennessee State Report Card, only 5 percent of the students at Signal Mountain Middle/High School are economically disadvantaged, while 40 percent of the students at Red Bank High School fall into the same category.

During the 2015-2016 school year, the average ACT composite score at SMMHS was 24.7, while the average ACT composite score at RBHS was 18.5, Hall said, citing the data. The difference means more students at SMMHS will be eligible for finanicial aid, like the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship, which requires a composite ACT score of 21, while many at RBHS will fail to meet the same requirements.

"We must use data on student demographics and achievement as an indicator of inequities, not an excuse for them," said Hall.

Gladys Pineda-Loher, director of international community outreach at Chattanooga State Community College, said inequities also exist for students within different subgroups throughout Hamilton County - particularly for English language learners, or ELLs, whom she has been supporting through advocacy efforts for more than 10 years.

As one of the steering committee members representing District 3, one of Pineda-Loher's biggest concerns is that these children, who may be immigrants or refugees, will not have proper access to early postsecondary opportunities that ensure student readiness for future education and careers.

"ELL in Hamilton County is composed of a very diverse and complex group of students with different gifts, educational needs, languages, backgrounds, challenges and expectations," Pineda-Loher said. "It is important that we support all Tennessee high school graduates toward a pathway for a postsecondary credential."

Ending education inequity won't be the work of just one committee, but rather the entire community, said Hall. She urges everyone to stay informed on the issue and get involved, whether through conversations with the APEX steering committee or other methods of advocacy outside UnifiEd.

"We can put Hamilton County on the map as a community with outstanding schools where everyone is a stakeholder in the academic success of every single student," Hall said. "I believe it is past time for our community to resolve the equity issue which has kept too many of our students from being successful in school. I applaud UnifiEd's commitment to address and resolve this issue once and for all."

Once the equity-policy platform is made public in early 2018, UnifiEd and the committee will begin their push to persuade the school board, Hamilton County Commission and Hamilton County Department of Education to implement it.

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