Hamilton County Schools leaders look to community schools to serve highest-needs students

Community School Coordinators Mellisa Graham, left, and John Cunningham pose at Orchard Knob Middle School on Thursday, March 29, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn.


› East Lake Academy: 79.8 percent› Dalewood Middle School: 77.8 percent› Orchard Knob Middle School: 84.4 percent› Orchard Knob Elementary School: 85.7 percentSource: 2017 Tennessee Department of Education State Report Card

As student achievement historically has faltered in some of Hamilton County's highest-needs schools, the school district has explored options to bolster performance and support students and their communities.

Last fall, new Superintendent Bryan Johnson launched the Opportunity Zone, allocating more staff and resources to Brainerd High School, The Howard School and their feeder schools, and in February the state unveiled its plan for five of the 12 schools.

Now, the district is taking a step to address the needs that come into play before students ever step into the classroom - basic needs such as hot meals and access to health care - which research shows the lack of has a toxic effect on student success.

Community school models will be launched in four Opportunity Zone schools this fall - East Lake Academy, Dalewood Middle School, Orchard Knob Middle School and Orchard Knob Elementary School - as the district attempts to emulate the model that has seen success in Red Bank.

The plan

Community school models, which look different at every school, will be rolled out this fall at the Opportunity Zone's middle schools and one elementary school.

It's not a finish line though, said John Cunningham, one of the district's coordinators. It's more like a leaping point.

"The dream is for people to feel like [the school] is a hub of services for all the family's needs," he said. "We are assessing what is being done in the school and marrying that different work together."

The YMCA and On Point are two of the biggest partners - most community school models have a lead partner that shares the effort with the school district to organize programs and coordinate resources.

On Point has committed four part-time coordinators and the district is still pinpointing providers for some of the schools.

The first priority will be developing after-school programs, if the school doesn't already have one, and expanding extended learning opportunities for students.

School board member Tiffanie Robinson of District 4, in which several Opportunity Schools fall, is excited about what that will mean for improving student success.

"The most successful schools have always had the community involved," Robinson said. "The world has changed so much, we have to meet people where they are. We want parents and community members to feel like our schools are great place to be for them to go to for resources."

Red Bank High School's community success

Later this month, Red Bank High School is hosting a kickball game, pitting parents against students in an effort to bring the community together. This is just one of the new initiatives and successes that Stephanie Hayes, Red Bank's community school coordinator, is celebrating as the school approaches its first full academic year under the model.

In January, the school celebrated the one-year anniversary of a partnership that grew out of a Northside Neighborhood House initiative and the Chattanooga 2.0 movement that has manifested in after-school programs, academic support, parent classes and engagement, and more than a dozen community partnerships.

"The schools are often the central point of the community," said Rachel Gammon, executive director of Northside Neighborhood House. "The model is going back and meeting the needs of the community and the families and the students served in that setting."

Almost half of the students at Red Bank have used community school services - 40 to 50 students attend the daily afterschool program, LEOS (Leadership. Excellence. Opportunity. Scholars), which has expanded into Red Bank Middle School, and the YMCA has served thousands of meals since the Hub (the physical central part of the model) launched.

Most of all, the culture at the school has shifted, said Hayes.

"Part of the reason that the program is thriving is because the relationships have really deepened," she said.

Leaders within the Opportunity Zone want to emulate Red Bank's success, but the community school model is not "a cookie-cutter approach," Cunningham said.

Instead, partnerships and existing programs need to be leveraged to meet communities' unique needs.

And that's the plan, Cunningham said.

Opportunity Zone needs

Many of the students who attend Opportunity Zone schools come from communities of concentrated poverty that spans generations. Their lives at home are sometimes unstable and their neighborhoods are riddled with crime, as reflected in last week's indictments of 54 gang members.

Research shows that trauma, whether from violence or poverty, has a toxic effect on a student's academic performance and success. Nearly 85 percent of Orchard Knob's students are considered economically disadvantaged, and the school, along with the other Opportunity Zone schools, has struggled for years to increase student achievement.

"The success of students does not just depend on the 7.5 hours they spend at school, so it's important for community schools to meet the needs of the children," said Melissa Graham, the other half of the district's community school coordinator team. "We would have been successful a long time ago if meeting the needs during the 7.5 hours was enough."

The district does not plan to step in to these schools and tell them what they need, though - both parent and student advisory teams have or will be formed, steering committees for each community school will include leaders from local churches, nonprofits and neighborhoods already doing work in each of these schools, and an overall coalition of stakeholders is in the works.

The key players

Though Northside Neighborhood House has taken the lead on the northern end of the county, the YMCA and On Point are leading the charge in the Opportunity Zone. The YMCA, which has dozens of programs already in Hamilton County Schools, is already invested in the East Lake community, said Bill Rush, executive director for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga. It has committed to help grow afterschool programs and has already established a student advisory group at East Lake.

On Point, which has served Hamilton County since the 1990s, has four different program models, one of which - Graduate On Point - was developed in Brainerd High School. The organization has committed to funding 4 part-time community school coordinators for 4 schools within the Opportunity Zone.

Many community school programs are funded through state and federal grants, such as 21st Century grants, which often fund afterschool programs, and the various lead agencies and the district work to apply and harness those funds. Johnson has committed $300,000 in next year's proposed budgets to hire more coordinators like Cunningham and Graham to work in other areas of the district.

What's next

District officials cite the eventual goal of launching the model in every one of the system's 79 schools. For now, Cunningham said, it wanted to get four off the ground to begin to see what works and what doesn't.

In Knox County, where the Great Schools Partnership facilitates the school district's 13 community schools, students who participate in community school services such as tutoring, mentoring and afterschool programs sometimes attend a week more days of school every year, said Stephanie Welch, incoming president of the partnership.

Teacher satisfaction has improved, and more partners want to join as they see the success. Welch said the last time the organization compared performance between community schools and schools without the model, they found that they were slowly closing the achievement gap between those communities.

That's what Cunningham hopes Hamilton County will see.

"Kids have to be ready to learn," he said. "We need to start addressing the trauma-informed reasons as to why they aren't ready to learn."

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.