7 community leaders to serve on Partnership Network's advisory board to aid failing Hamilton County schools

Tennessee Education Commissioner Dr. Candice McQueen, right, shown conferring with Hamilton County Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson earlier this school year, testified this week on problems with the state's TNReady tests before the state legislature.

The backgrounds and expertise of these seven leaders will enrich our Partnership Network schools and benefit the variety of ways in which we serve our students in Hamilton County's highest-need schools.

Seven people will help lead collaborative improvement efforts for five of Hamilton County's historically failing schools.

The Tennessee Department of Education and Hamilton County Schools have named the seven-member advisory board for the Partnership Network, the collaborative agreement between the state and the school district for improving Brainerd High School and four of its feeder schools, it was officially announced Tuesday.

The board members are:

  • Valoria Armstrong, president of Tennessee American Water Co.
  • Wayne Brown, Woodmore community member and member of the Tennessee Parent/Teacher Association (PTA)
  • Ardena Garth, attorney and president of Chattanooga Endeavors
  • Patricia McKoy, retired Hamilton County educator, former Public Education Fund Leadership Fellow
  • Ernest L. Reid, Jr., pastor of Second Missionary Baptist Church
  • Gerald Webb, partner at Speek, Webb, Turner & Newkirk and alumnus of Woodmore Elementary School, Dalewood Middle School and Brainerd High School
  • Dakasha Winton, chief government relations officer at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and first vice chair of the board for the nonprofit Park Center in Nashville

"The backgrounds and expertise of these seven leaders will enrich our Partnership Network schools and benefit the variety of ways in which we serve our students in Hamilton County's highest-need schools," Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen said in a statement. "We're fortunate to have such talented and passionate leaders step up to advise our work in the Partnership Network."

Partnership Network schools

Brainerd High SchoolDalewood Middle SchoolOrchard Knob ElementaryOrchard Knob Middle SchoolWoodmore Elementary

Though the announcement was overdue - the agreement approved by the Hamilton County school board in February laid out that the board would be formed within 30 days - it is the next step in years of efforts to curb low student achievement in the schools.

The collaborative partnership effort is one of several new school improvement options that the state has in alignment with its plan to transition to the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. The district receives extra support and direction from the state in regard to the five schools, as well as opportunities for extra funding.

Hamilton County has begun using $990,998 it was awarded through a partnership grant, and additional funding opportunities are being explored, according to a spokesperson for the state Department of Education.

The board, which will serve only in an advisory role, will be tasked with reviewing the goals established for the network, as well as reviewing progress and implementation of initiatives. Other responsibilities such as resource allocation, hiring and evaluation still reside with Superintendent Bryan Johnson and the school board, according to the memorandum.

The board members, four of whom were named by the state and three by the district, include both alumni and parents or family members of students in Partnership Network schools.

The district's picks were Armstrong, McKoy and Reid.

"I am looking forward to continuing to work with Commissioner McQueen and our new Partnership Network Advisory Board members as we continue to cast a vision for improvement in Hamilton County," Johnson said in a statement. "This is another way we are leading in thoughtful and innovative partnerships on behalf of our students, and the board members will push us even further."

In the months since the agreement, both the state and the district have been busy, the district with the announcement of its newest initiative, the Future Ready Institutes at the county's high schools, and the state with a plethora of problems from this spring's TNReady assessments.

Last week, the state also announced that the formidable longtime leader of Shelby County Schools, Sharon Griffin, will be the next leader of the Achievement School District and the state's school turnaround efforts.

photo Brainerd High School is located at 1020 North Moore Road in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Since 2012, the five Partnership Network schools - Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary and Woodmore Elementary - have been on the state's priority school list, or in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state. But those schools have been on the state's radar for decades since it first identified schools that needed improvement in 2001.

In 2016, the state threatened to take over the schools, then known as the iZone, after $10 million in school improvement funding didn't seem to help improve student achievement. Last year, an alternative to a complete takeover, such as adding the schools to the Achievement School District as has been done in Shelby County, was proposed. When new Superintendent Bryan Johnson took the helm of the district, state leaders said it had newfound confidence in the district's efforts.

Just months into his tenure, Johnson launched the Opportunity Zone, which encompasses not only the five partnership schools but 12 schools total, and invested more than $1 million into a leadership team.

"I'm really excited that people of this caliber are willing to invest in our kids," said Jill Levine, chief of the Opportunity Zone, of the newly announced advisory board members. "The partnership has evolved in a really positive way. ... There's a level of trust, and it's a positive back-and-forth dialogue about making the schools better."

Board member Tiffanie Robinson, of District 4, is also pleased with the evolution of the partnership so far.

"It's been very district-led," she said. "It feels like the state is truly collaborating with the district."

Of the board members, Robinson is glad that many of them have local ties and local experience.

"Commissioner McQueen's list seems strategic and well-thought out," she said, adding that several of the advisory board members work in the communities that make up the Partnership Network and the Opportunity Zone.

Since the establishment of the Opportunity Zone, Levine and her team have led efforts to focus on recruitment and retention of teachers in those schools, improving literacy rates and launching community school-models in several schools.

A recruitment coordinator, Carmen Carson, was hired specifically for the Opportunity Zone, and more than 70 new teachers already have been hired for the next school year, Levine said. Brainerd High also got a new principal, Christopher James, in March.

Overall, the district is exploring opportunities available to all students, but especially students of color and those who come from communities of concentrated poverty, and how to better support them.

The advisory board will have an orientation this summer, followed by its first public meeting in the fall. McQueen will appoint a chair of the board before that meeting. The state also still needs to hire a liaison - a network facilitator - to manage the relationship among the advisory board, the county and the state.

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