UnifiEd identifies 10 focus areas for Hamilton County public schools

Next step in APEX project will be a policy platform built around action plans

UnifiEd Director of Policy and Research Ashley Conrad, left, and Communications Director Natalie Cook smile while talking with the Times Free Press about their Apex Policy at the UnifiEd office on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
UnifiEd Director of Policy and Research Ashley Conrad, left, and Communications Director Natalie Cook smile while talking with the Times Free Press about their Apex Policy at the UnifiEd office on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

With the conclusion of UnifiEd's community bus tour, the organization has identified the top 10 priorities for its policy platform, the next stage in the APEX project.

The education advocacy organization, formed to address issues in Hamilton County public schools, launched its Action Plan for Educational Excellence, or APEX, project last August with the mission to craft a policy to ensure all students have the resources they need to succeed, regardless of socioeconomic status.

More Info

For more information about UnifiEd’s APEX project, and for details on the Feb. 22 event, visit unifi-ed.org/the-apex-project.

The first step of the project was to gather community feedback, which the organization has done in the form of 2,600 surveys analyzed by UnifiEd's team. In December, the group set off on a bus tour with stops at schools, churches, recreation centers, grocery stores and even a virtual option to present 25 top issues in five categories gathered from the survey for community members to vote on.

Nearly 1,500 committee members have participated in the bus tour in the past two months.

"It was really interesting seeing how the community responded," said Natalie Cook, UnifiEd's communications director. "People were really excited that we were giving them the opportunity to provide community input ... it was interesting to see the frustration that many people had [from] not being asked in a meaningful way before. That underscores to us this [process] being a new way of making community change."

The top two issues in each category will now form the basis for a policy platform the organization plans to unveil next month, said Ashley Conrad, director of policy and research for UnifiEd.

"The plan will be built from best practice research, include possible solutions and clear ways for the community to accomplish those goals," Conrad said.

Those issues include long-term funding plans, funding specifically to recruit and support teachers, focuses on students' mental and emotional health, giving students voice, the creation of a plan to end socioeconomic and racial segregation in schools, better community and parent engagement and a call for local organizations to provide resources for schools.

UnifiEd's 10 focus areas

Elected Officials:1. Funds must be provided to make all school facilities safe and healthy learning spaces, and there must be a long-term plan to keep them that way2. There must be funding to recruit, support and keep the best teachersCentral Office:1. Teaching and programs must provide personalized support, especially to those with special needs and minority identities (like English-language learners and LGBTQ+ students)2. A plan must be developed to end socioeconomic and racial segregation in schoolsSchools:1. Students and teachers must have a voice in the issues that matter to them to support better relationships and engagement2. Students mental and emotional health needs must be supportedCommunity Members:1. Parents and community members must embrace opportunities to support schools and children2. Community members must demand the end of socioeconomic and racial segregation in our schoolsCommunity Organizations:1. Mentoring, field trips and early childhood education initiatives must be expanded2. Local organizations and businesses must support and provide resources to our schools

The platform is aimed at five groups - elected officials, Hamilton County Schools' Central Office administration, the schools themselves, community members and community organizations - and UnifiEd's leadership hopes to engage each of those groups on steps to make change happen in Hamilton County.

"We are asking for commitments from folks," said Jonas Barriere, executive director of UnifiEd. "We are challenging everyone, including ourselves, to take a serious look at what the community is saying and trying to develop action plans around that. ... We see five entities that can really move the needle on this work."

The group considers itself the instigator as it engages different community stakeholders in how to tackle some of the challenges.

"Another piece of this is we've been going and reaching out to other organizations that have tried this work in Hamilton County, everyone from local judges to local police department, local foundations, nonprofit and other organizations that have taken a piece of it and analyzed it before," Barriere said.

According to Conrad, the policy platform, which will be crafted by the APEX project's 27-member steering committee, will be largely based on best practice research - whether those best practices come from school systems across the country or from the local community.

"Something that is really important to us is we can't just solve public education issues without addressing other issues like housing, public safety, etc.," Conrad said.

The focus areas, chosen based on the community's votes, were inspired originally by the equity surveys collected last fall. Those issues identified in the surveys were broken into eight original subcategories:

» Big-picture issues (including topics such as equity, appropriate funding, leadership and religion in schools)

» Student health and well-being (such as student voice, discipline and LGBTQ+ issues)

» School health (such as resources, infrastructure and support staff)

» Staff recruitment, development and retention

» Comprehensive course offerings (including personalized learning, art, AP/honors classes and dual language)

» School and community relationships (including parent engagement)

» Schools and neighborhood development (such as concentrated poverty)

» Accountability and transparency (including testing and elected officials)

UnifiEd will hold a public event announcing the policy platform on Feb. 22 at the Barking Legs Theater in Chattanooga. Members of the steering committee will dig deeper into the platform's focus areas and preview the complete platform that will be released in March. The event will be from 5:30-7 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

Once the platform is released, Barriere said the group plans to encourage representatives from all five groups represented to commit to it. Some individuals and organizations have already expressed the intent to commit to it and work with the group to craft action plans, he said.

"We are going to look to them to publicly commit to what parts of this they support and what parts they are willing to advocate for," Barriere said. "There are a lot of people who are pumped about this."

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

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