State to present new plan for failing schools to Hamilton County school board

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson speaks during a celebration event Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, at Orchard Knob Elementary School in Chattanooga, Tenn. The event was held to kick off the Opportunity Zone initiative.

The Opportunity Zone schools:

Brainerd HighDalewood MiddleHardy ElementaryWoodmore ElementaryBarger ElementaryHoward HighEast Lake MiddleOrchard Knob ElementaryCalvin Donaldson ElementaryClifton Hills ElementaryEast Lake ElementaryOrchard Knob Middle


2001: The state identifies 11 Hamilton County schools as “in need of improvement.” The list includes Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary and Woodmore Elementary.2012: The Tennessee Department of Education identifies the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide. The state terms the schools “priority schools” and the list includes Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Woodmore Elementary and Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy.Spring 2013: Hamilton County Schools receives a three-year School Improvement Grant to support its five priority schools, also known as iZone schools — Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary and Woodmore Elementary — totaling more than $10 million.Fall 2013: Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy receives honors for strong academic improvement and moves off the state’s priority schools list. The other five Hamilton County Schools remain on the list.January 2016: The state sends a report to Hamilton County Schools notifying leaders the district’s five iZone schools are not making expected progress, placing blame squarely on the district’s leadership.Fall 2016: The state threatens to take over at least some of Hamilton County’s iZone schools if academic gains are not made.Spring 2017: The state proposes working with Hamilton County Schools through a “Partnership Zone” to support the five iZone schools as an alternative to takeover.Summer 2017: The Hamilton County Board of Education hires Superintendent Bryan Johnson and he asks for more time to talk to the state about plans for the five schools.Sources: Tennessee Department of Education, Times Free Press archives

The Hamilton County Department of Education will meet Thursday with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen in a board work session once again to discuss the plan on how to address historic under-performance in the district's five priority schools - but the conversation will not look the same as where it left off.

In September, the board voted to move forward with conversations with the state about what a Partnership Zone would look like. The 7-2 vote followed the state giving the district two options - a state-run Achievement School District or shared governance with a proposed Partnership Zone - for intervention in the five schools that have shown a pattern of low performance: Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary.

This week, however, McQueen will not be presenting a plan for a partnership zone to school board members, but rather a plan for a partnership network and a memorandum of understanding she expects the board to vote on later this month.

"We have come to what I consider an evolving way to think about partnership with the district based off a lot that has changed in the past few months and based off some confidence that we have in some things that are being built at the district level," McQueen told the Times Free Press in January.

The terminology itself - "Partnership Network" versus "Partnership Zone" - signals a few key changes, McQueen said, the biggest change being the confidence the state has in district leadership.

"There is a structure that they have put in place that we have confidence in," she said. "We thought it would be premature to pull out these five schools that we were talking about for a separate zone into a different governance when there's so much strong work that has just started under a strong leadership."

Last August, newly arrived Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson launched the Opportunity Zone, his plan to support 12 of the district's struggling schools, casting a wide net around the five schools that at the time were still considered iZone schools.

Johnson's Opportunity Zone strategy thus far has included appointing an executive director of the zone - Jill Levine - and announcing a leadership team to oversee curriculum work and other restructuring within the zone. At the time, Johnson also expressed a desire to continue to work with the state on how to support the five specific schools considered priority schools.

"Since the first day I got here, I asked, 'What's the plan for the 12 schools that are failing?'" Johnson said in the same meeting with the Times Free Press. "We are really making sure the infrastructure is going to be there to support the schools at an equal level. We look forward with these five schools to be able to go at a deeper level, it's gotta be all-in, if you look at the performance of these schools, it has to be."

The state's proposal for a partnership zone came last spring, as an alternative to a complete state takeover of the schools that would have put them under the umbrella of the Achievement School District, which already includes schools statewide, such as in Shelby County. The state had openly blamed district leadership and a lack of organization, structure or strategy for the ongoing low performance of the iZone schools.

"Some of the challenges we saw with the former iZone [were] that things seemed very scatter-shot," McQueen said. "It wasn't clear, what we were moving toward."

The biggest components of the new network plan that McQueen revealed will be the creation of a seven-member advisory committee to oversee the improvement work within the schools, a state-funded partnership network facilitator who will report to the commissioner but work in tandem with Johnson, Levine, the school board and the advisory board, and strategic funding.

But ultimately, the responsibility for the performance of the schools within the zone will remain with Johnson and the executive director of the Opportunity Zone.

School board members, who historically had varying opinions about state involvement in the priority schools, seem to be looking forward to what McQueen will present Thursday.

"I am happy with where the partnership is going," said District 4 school board member Tiffanie Robinson, who has many of the Opportunity Zone schools in her district. "I think Commissioner McQueen's mind has changed into a different direction. I think the reasons why she's willing to make those changes is she's seeing the progress that Dr. Johnson is making in those schools."

Robinson noted that she is excited about the staffing and curriculum changes she has seen within her district's schools, describing them as "strong."

"I have to rely on my principals - they're saying this is the most supported they've ever felt," Robinson said. "What I'm seeing is very positive."

Board Chairman Steve Highlander, who represents District 9, said he appreciates that the state will operate in more of an "advisory capacity than a controlling capacity."

"I think what Dr. McQueen is proposing is what I asked for in the beginning, they are becoming more like oversight," Highlander said. "I think she has appreciated what Dr. Johnson has put together for the Opportunity Zone, she sees it as a more workable plan than anything HCDE has done in the past."

Some board members continue to be frustrated with the seemingly ever-changing plans and initiatives for the schools.

"I just hate that we spend so much time on these schools. I don't care to have another conversation," said Rhonda Thurman, of District 1. "We've moved around people two or three times, we're doing all we can. In reality, whether the state puts some different people in there or we put some different people in, I think everyone is on the same page.

"No matter who you put in those schools, you can't change some of these issues," she said.

The Opportunity Zone schools include areas of concentrated poverty and the problems that often accompany it - chronic absenteeism, large numbers of English language learners and low graduation or educational attainment rates.

"I think it's a real community problem. Our whole community needs to wake up to the fact that we have schools that the state could take over, we haven't been able to correct them," said school board member David Testerman, of District 8. "This community - the Chattanooga community, Hamilton County community, business partners - the whole community needs to realize that it's a shame what's happened to these schools for the past 15 years. We can do better."

On Thursday, the board will have a chance to hear McQueen's proposal before most likely voting whether to accept the plan at the next board meeting on Feb. 15.

If the board accepts the plan then, the state and Johnson will have 30 days to appoint the advisory board - the state will appoint four members, Johnson will appoint three - and that board will have 60 days to outline specific goals and steps that can be taken to measure improvement within the network.

"What makes it unique is the goals are developed in collaboration, so it holds everyone accountable from our board, to myself, to the leadership of the zone and all obviously to the state," Johnson said.

The Partnership Network would go into effect for the 2018-19 school year and last five years.

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