How Hamilton County school leaders and community members are addressing inequities in area schools

Marsha Drake is seen inside the Hamilton County School building on W. 40th Street. Drake is chief equity officer for the Hamilton County Department of Education.
Marsha Drake is seen inside the Hamilton County School building on W. 40th Street. Drake is chief equity officer for the Hamilton County Department of Education.


Ashley Conrad, UnifiEdAlexa LeBoeuf, UnifiEdElenora Woods, president of the NAACPJennifer Woods, education chair of the NAACPWarren Logan, president of theUrban LeagueSherman Matthews,Unity GroupBill Kennedy, Public Education FoundationDr. Jeffrey Wilson, pastor at New United Baptist ChurchMatt Busby, Camp House DirectorRon Harris, vice president of Diversity and Inclusion at Blue Cross/Blue ShieldH. Maria Noel, director of Diversity & Inclusion at Chattanooga Chamber of CommerceCarmen Ware, attorney at The Ware Law FirmJared Bingham, executive director of Chattanooga 2.0Gladys Pineda-Loher, Director of International Community Outreach for Chattanooga State Community CollegeJennifer Ellis, associate professor and STEM Education Director at the University of Tennessee at ChattanoogaJames Tucker, UTC Chair of ExcellenceEdwin McPherson, Assistant Chattanooga City Police ChiefLt. Shaun Shepherd, school resource officer administrator for Hamilton County SchoolsRob Philyaw, Hamilton County Juvenile Court judgeShawn Kurrelmeier-Lee, Chief Reading Officer for Hamilton County Read20 ProgramDan Liner, president of the Hamilton County Education AssociationCale Horne, member of the Chattanooga Inclusive Education Working Group and faculty member at Covenant CollegeRachel Gammon, CEO of Northside Neighborhood HouseLuronda Jennings, special education teacher at Brainerd High SchoolDebbie Smith, principal at Chattnooga Center for Creative ArtsFinley King, principal at Central High SchoolGarfield Adams, exceptional education director for Hamilton County Department of EducationJulie Legg, ESOL Services Program Director for HCDESteve Highlander, chairman of the Hamilton County school board


equity | noun | the quality of being fair and impartial (Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary)Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. An equitable education works well when ALL students receive individualized resources to be successful. (Source: UnifiEd)Equity is defined as “the state, quality or ideal of being just, impartial and fair.” The concept of equity is synonymous with fairness and justice. (Source: The Annie E. Casey Foundation)Equity for all students requires acknowledging and disrupting traditional notions of power and hierarchies and taking a collective responsibility for correcting existing systems and structures. (Source: Anissa Listak, National Center for Teacher Residencies)

In 17 Hamilton County schools, more than 90 percent of student are minorities from communities of concentrated poverty.

Experts argue those students don't start on a level playing field, and they are working to make sure that those students have equity, meaning their personal circumstances - socio-econiomic status or race, for example - are not an obstacle in their education.

Equity work isn't new. Many community organizations have been working to address equity issues for years, but with increased pressure and new leadership, Hamilton County Schools has formed a task force charged with addressing equity.

Equity and why it matters

The term "equity" is often used by philanthropic organizations and government entities, but there is a distinction between equity and equality, experts say.

"We are at a dangerous time in society," said Castwell Fider, talent management specialist for the Public Education Foundation's Project Inspire teacher residency. "Are these kids fit? Are they getting what they need?"

For a parent, equity can mean "does your children receive what they need to succeed," which often looks different for every child.

"Equity refers to the principal of fairness. For us, we have to understand where our kids are coming from and give them everything they need to be successful [such as] access to academic resources, social-emotional supports," said Jill Levine, chief of the Opportunity Zone for Hamilton County Schools. "The reason equity is so complex is basically in the definition it is incumbent upon us."

Research shows that students from families in concentrated poverty experience trauma - or adverse childhood experiences - at a greater level, enter school behind their peers, and stay behind because of a systematic lack of resources in schools.

Data released by the National Center for Education Statistics last week shows that an achievement gap persists nationally between children of color, poor children, children who don't speak English as their first language, and their white, wealthier peers. Scores on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress also indicate that nationally -and statewide - lower performing students continue to do worse, while their higher-performing peers improve.

This, advocates argue, is why providing funding, supports and resources is vital for students.

"Kids spend more time in school than they do with their families, so schools cannot and must not be only about academics," Fider said. "Equity means stepping up in more emotional way."

Lack of equity, which leads to students who lack resources and opportunities for success, becomes a societal problem, said Alexa LeBoeuf, director of community engagement at UnifiEd.

"It puts a massive financial burden on our community," LeBoeuf said.

Communities pay for it in the criminal justice system and through social services people need when they are living in concentrated poverty.

"We pay for it every day," she added.

The proposal

In March, the local chapter of the NAACP submitted a proposal to the school board, arguing that the district needs a plan to desegregate the county's schools.

"We believe the present county system is a dual system. There are 12 Chattanooga schools that are 90 percent or more black and Hispanic. These schools have extremely high concentrations of families in poverty. We call them the segregated schools," said Jim Johnson, the NAACP's attorney, at the board meeting. "Students attending these 12 schools have dramatically less academic success than students in other county schools. As a result, these children have dramatically lower expectations for success in life."

Many of the schools - Barger Academy, Brainerd High, Brown Academy, Calvin Donaldson Elementary, Clifton Hills Elementary, Dalewood Middle, East Lake Academy, East Side Elementary, Hardy Elementary, Lakeside Academy, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle, The Howard School, Tyner Academy, Woodmore Elementary - are in areas that were once part of the city school system and areas of the city that see higher crime and widespread poverty.

Many of these same schools make up the district's Opportunity Zone, and five of the historically lowest-performing are included in the Partnership network the district formed with the state to tackle student achievement gaps earlier this year.

The NAACP has urged the board to open enrollment across the county, allowing for widespread desegregation through school choice. It also presented a plan for training teachers on how work with students of different races and backgrounds.

The proposal also recommends hiring consultants to work with the district and develop a desegregation plan would be about $500,000 according to the NAACP's proposal.

NAACP President Elenora Woods and Jennifer Woods, a retired educator and the education chairwoman for the organization, sit on the district's newly formed task force.

Community efforts

The NAACP is not the first group to tackle equity.

Almost every community organization doing work in schools, whether providing snack packs or after-school tutoring, are tackling a piece of it.

One of the leaders of the conversation is UnifiEd, an education advocacy group launched in 2014 whose sole goal is to engage the community on how to improve the county's public schools.

"It's a moral imperative that we provide all of our students a quality education. Period," said Ashley Conrad, director for policy and research for UnifiEd.

Through the group's APEX (Action Plan for Educational Excellence) project and it's newly launched Equity Collective, it has defined areas that need to be addressed in order to ensure all students are receiving a quality education, including taking a look at school zoning, discipline practices, increasing the number of teachers of color, and increased the offerings and opportunities (such as access to Advanced Placement classes) at every school.

"The hope is that this very diverse group of people will be able to put together an action plan," said Natalie Cook, interim executive director of the organization, of it's equity collective working groups.

The Chattanooga 2.0 initiative' founding members - the Benwood Foundation, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the Hamilton County Department of Education and the Public Education Foundation - have also organized working groups, but none that solely address race and diversity or socioeconomic segregation.

One area that has seen substantial work is around students with disabilities - a population that is sometimes left out of conversations about equity. Chattanooga 2.0's inclusion working group has been quietly creating a three-year plan for the school system to improve opportunities and ensure students with disabilities are receiving equitable treatment.

Cale Horne, one of the founders of the group, will also serve on the district's task force.

"Disability and equity is complex, but it must center around evidence-based inclusion for students with disabilities in our schools with access to the education and opportunities afforded their typically developing peers, which is not only the law but is also just the right thing to do," Horne said. "Disability and race also intersect in complex ways, and I hope the Equity Task force can address some of these issues."

One specific example of how students are not treated fairly is when it comes to discipline - something he hopes the task force can address.

"Students with disabilities are more likely to be subject to suspension, expulsion, or other forms of discipline compared to their typical peers, and minority students with disabilities are far more likely to be subject to disciplinary action than other students with disabilities," he said. "There's no justice in this and no research to support the practice."

Community member Lakweshia Ewing believes that because of the layers of society that perpetuate inequities, one institution effectively cannot address them.

"You can't talk about educational equity without talking about all of society's ills," Ewing said. "The issue is so multifaceted, you can't just extract what happens in the schools without extracting what's happening in the nonprofit sector."

Ewing pointed out that efforts led by community members and clergy, by groups like local foundations and the United Way - which fund nonprofits doing this work - all are addressing the concerns that Chattanooga is divided.

"I think Chattanooga has recognized that we have an issue there is all this question about this concept of two Chattanoogas, what can we do from our respective places. We didn't get here overnight," she said.

"People are starting to come to grips with the reality that this has been something that we have allowed to perpetuate in our community for far too long," Ewing added.

Jared Bigham, executive director of Chattanooga 2.0, agreed.

"I equate equity with access instead of 'opportunity' like some people define it," he said. "We don't have a problem with opportunities in Hamilton County. Our problem is that not all students have the social capital or academic preparation to access those opportunities."

Through the task force and intentional conversations, many, including Bigham, feel the community is finally poised to tackle these issues.

"We have been having the 'equity conversation' for a while, but I think the community is now poised to have an actionable conversation that goes beyond simply defining what equity is and being more concrete about what it looks like in practice," he said.

The task force

Because of the community involvement and increased dialogue, district officials say, the school system launched its own task force, naming more than two dozen members, in March.

"These are tough conversations, and they have to be had," said Bryan Johnson, Hamilton County Schools superintendent. "We've been talking for years and now is the time for some action."

The task force, which met for the first time April 10, plans to review the district's policies and procedures, developing a framework for ensuring equity and a score card that it can hold itself accountable to.

These are lofty goals to accomplish in the six meetings planned for the group, but Marsha Drake, the district's chief equity officer, said accomplishing these goals will take the entire community.

"This isn't just going to be a Hamilton County thing, it's going to be a city, county, community-wide initiative," Drake said.

Drake said some of the policies and procedures the task force will review includes special education policies, how Hispanic/Latino students are supported, English as a Second Language education and the achievement gaps seen historically in the district's data.

"The end product is for us to have framework that we can actually use in the strategic plan and a score card to hold us accountable," Drake said.

Many community members who have already been doing this work are hesitant, worried that talking about inequities won't led to actual change, but many are also encouraged by the conversation even taking place.

"What I think Dr. Johnson is doing, to his credit, he has assembled his team and I think they are trying to address it, its going to take the community to look in the mirror and say we do have some issues," Ewing said. "It's going to be a hard pill to swallow."

Cook adds that even a year ago, many of these conversations were not taking place at the district-level or in the community at large.

"More people are coming to the table," she said.

Conrad echoed Cook's sentiments.

"People are being more courageous than I've ever seen before," she said.

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

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