Depending on community feedback, Hamilton County Schools officials say alternative rezoning proposals possible

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/  Arielle Stephens, center, points to a area of concern while other people look at the maps detailing the proposed re-zoning.  The conversation about rezoning some of Hamilton County Schoolsՠattendance zones began with a meeting to discuss the East Hamilton/Ooltewah rezoning at Ooltewah Middle School Tuesday night. This is the first of three such meetings.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Arielle Stephens, center, points to a area of concern while other people look at the maps detailing the proposed re-zoning. The conversation about rezoning some of Hamilton County Schoolsՠattendance zones began with a meeting to discuss the East Hamilton/Ooltewah rezoning at Ooltewah Middle School Tuesday night. This is the first of three such meetings.

Families of students in nearly a dozen schools that could be affected by Hamilton County Schools' proposed rezoning plan are concerned about the potential impact on children and neighborhoods, with some wondering if it's the right move.

Over the last two weeks, several hundred parents and community members attended three community meetings to hear from Chief Operations Officer Justin Robertson and other district officials.

Under the plan, which some district officials have called a "temporary solution," some students now zoned for Ooltewah Middle and High schools will be rezoned to East Hamilton High and the new East Hamilton Middle; Hillcrest Elementary will be closed and those students will join former Harrison Elementary students at the new Harrison Elementary; and several elementary schools downtown could be affected by shifting attendance zones.

But Superintendent Bryan Johnson told a crowd gathered at The Bethlehem Center on Tuesday night that the plan to rezone some students in neighborhoods surrounding St. Elmo from Calvin Donaldson to Lookout Mountain Elementary and replacing them with students from Clifton Hills Elementary is a "Band-Aid."

The downtown area really needs a new elementary school, Johnson said - something already recommended in the preliminary facilities report presented by MGT Consulting Group last summer.

Hamilton County is seeing significant growth in Districts 4, 7 and 9 - downtown, East Hamilton and Ooltewah/Harrison - but the last major rezoning for Hamilton County Schools was back in 1998, right after the city and the county school systems merged.

For parents, any disruption to their child's life can be taxing, but some communities are concerned about the greater impact.

Merging two schools

At the Washington Hills Youth and Family Development Center on Thursday night, the small crowd gathered to hear about the zoning changes predominantly consisted of families whose students now attend Hillcrest Elementary.

The school, built in 1948, is slated to be closed at the end of this school year, and about 250 students will be merged with Harrison Elementary students when the new Harrison opens its doors this fall.

It's part of $110 million in capital projects approved by the Hamilton County Commission in 2017.

The new school is projected to have about 800 students, with room for more in one of the fastest-growing areas of the county.

CURRENT REZONING TIMELINE

— Feb. 4: Community feedback surveys close— Feb. 17: School board work session to discuss proposed rezoning plan— March 19: School board meeting, slated to vote on proposed planFor more information, visit: www.hcde.org/redistricting.

But Hillcrest students are mostly black and Harrison's are mostly white, something members of the crowd pointed out. Why are their students losing their school, their identity, several mothers asked.

" - From my experience, that is usually terrible when two schools merge," one mother in the crowd said. "I don't want that for these kids."

County Commissioner Katherlyn Geter, of District 5, also asked district officials how the school would ensure it was an inclusive, welcoming setting for all students.

Though the new school's name is Harrison Elementary, it will boast a new mascot - neither the Harrison Cougars or the Hillcrest Hawks. Instead, the students will be the Robots.

Principal Wendy Jung has been working with both schools' staffs through the transition, with family nights planned at both schools this spring and a joint meeting this summer.

Most of Hillcrest's teachers will be moving along with their students to the new school, and district officials said a larger school could allow for more opportunities - art teachers, music teachers, an outdoor classroom, a variety of academic programs - than smaller schools.

Still, Johnson acknowledged merging two schools is hard.

"The reality is, when you have two schools becoming one, you're going to have one principal. And the demographics of this school will be dramatically different," Johnson told the crowd.

What about the neighborhood?

Many of the neighborhoods that could be affected by the rezoning of East Hamilton and Ooltewah Middle and High schools were the same ones impacted in 2011.

Students who live in five areas in the East Brainerd and Ooltewah areas of the county would be rezoned from Ooltewah Middle and Ooltewah High to the new East Hamilton Middle and East Hamilton High under the current proposal.

The new attendance zones in all areas of the county would take effect this August for the 2020-21 school year.

The new East Hamilton Middle School has been in the works since 2017 and is a response to increased growth in the area.

The current East Hamilton Middle/High School is over capacity with more than 1,655 students, and the district wants to ensure buildings have capacity for expected growth.

The Regional Planning Agency predicts that the area south of White Oak, which encompasses part of both East Hamilton High and Ooltewah High's zones, will grow by as many as 1,354 homeowners and 1,016 renters in the next 10 years, according to district officials.

Students who now attend Ooltewah Middle or Ooltewah High will be able to be stay in their current school through a "grandfathering" process, but transportation will not be provided. Younger siblings who do not yet attend a specific school will have to attend their zoned school. The same process will apply to students who now attend any of the schools set to be rezoned this year.

Both high schools do offer "choice" options through their Future Ready Institutes, or career academies, but transportation is not provided to those students either. Other options such as open-enrollment schools or magnet schools also are available to students and parents.

A temporary fix

Across town in Chattanooga's urban core, most of the district's elementary students are housed in overcrowded, old facilities.

The current plan to relieve overcrowding at Clifton Hills Elementary by rezoning some students to Calvin Donaldson still will leave both schools well over capacity.

Clifton Hills is now at 140% capacity and Calvin Donaldson is at 106%, according to district data. But under the proposed plan, Clifton Hills will still be at 123% capacity and Calvin Donaldson will jump to 119%. Lookout Mountain will increase enrollment only from 70% to 76%.

Community member Sarita Burch asked why children and families need to be uprooted now if there isn't a permanent solution in place.

"How long have we known that Clifton Hills has portables there? And we are just now coming to the realization that we need to have these children move? It's been a minute," Burch said. "These issues have been here. We don't need a Band-Aid, we need some permanent solutions."

Robertson said the current proposal isn't the only scenario the district has considered, but a second one would affect more schools and as many as 1,000 students at other schools such as Brown Academy and East Lake Elementary.

The preliminary MGT report already recommends adding a new K-5 elementary school to downtown Chattanooga and tearing down Clifton Hills Elementary, but the facilities plan is far from permanent - the school board hasn't even received final recommendations from the group yet, and many have hinted at taking a much longer process to develop a 10-year facilities plan.

This short-term solution could have major ramifications for families in these areas, many of them low-income or non-English speaking, community members also pointed out. A lack of transportation to Lookout Mountain or even across town to Calvin Donaldson, after-school programs and the future impacts on where elementary students attend middle or high school also have parents concerned.

District officials said that depending on community feedback and response to a zoning survey sent out to affected families, alternative plans might be presented for community feedback before a final recommendation goes to the school board in March.

For more information, visit: www.hcde.org/redistricting.

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

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