Hamilton County educators, groups describe challenges, potential solutions for improving teacher diversity, retention

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Educators participate in an icebreaker during a new hire orientation at Hamilton County Schools Central Office on Wednesday, July 10, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

As school systems across the nation wrestle with teacher shortages, education leaders in Hamilton County are looking at ways to attract new, diverse educators while retaining those that are already here.

Last month, four Hamilton County educators told attendees at a teacher diversity forum that Hamilton County is especially in need of more teachers of color in its schools.

"I do just want to point out, I think this is a very important topic, because I am now almost 15 years removed out of high school, and the conversation is still going on as it was when I was a student in high school and a student in middle school," said Kimberly Wright, a math teacher at Tyner Middle Academy.

The panel was held Oct. 26 by Project Inspire, a teacher residency program that places residents in high-need schools in Hamilton County.

"We're still having the conversation now, so I think it's very important that we're doing this work," Wright said.

The duration of the problem, spanning over a decade, was echoed at a Nov. 10 panel on teacher shortages.

"Things that we really do know is that the shortage is pretty scary across the whole country, especially in certain pockets of certain places, and it's growing, and it's been growing for over a decade," said Megan Boren of the educational nonprofit Southern Regional Education Board, which hosted the panel.

Within the past month, educators and education groups like Project Inspire and the Southern Regional Education Board have discussed taking more action to reduce teacher shortages and recruit a diverse pool of teachers locally and regionally.

The intertwined needs, while not new, have been made worse by the coronavirus pandemic, leading to renewed calls for change and sparking new local programs to retain and foster community among teachers.


The state of Tennessee reports historic teacher shortages for grades 6-12 across all four core subjects - math, language arts, social studies and science - according to data from the U.S. Department of Education Teacher Shortage Area report for 2021-22.

Shortage areas for K-12 include art and music education and health and physical fitness. For Pre-K-12, shortage areas include special education, support staff, world languages, early childhood education and English as a second language, according to the report.

Boren said teacher shortages are most severe in high-poverty districts, and each of the five Partnership Network schools in Hamilton County is predominantly made up of students who are economically disadvantaged and students of color.

The state created the Partnership Network Advisory Board to oversee five historically low-performing schools in Hamilton County: Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary schools.

Nearly 52% of Hamilton County Schools students are students of color, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Education State Report Card, compared to about 11% of teachers in the district, according to speakers at the Teacher Diversity Forum.

At Partnership Network schools, the percentage of students of color is even higher - and so is the percentage of students experiencing poverty.

Four out five students attending Orchard Knob Elementary and Orchard Knob Middle are economically disadvantaged, according to state report card data, and at least 90% of students attending Partnership Network schools are Black, Hispanic or Native American.

Chandler Davenport, a world history teacher at The Howard School, sat on the panel at the Teacher Diversity Forum. She said the vast majority of students at her school are Hispanic and African American and that creating community support for teachers is just as critical as the support teachers receive at school.

"Part of what makes this job so hard is that I can't just show up and teach my kids content, I gotta show up and make sure their mental [health] is OK - 'Are you hungry? Did you sleep last night? Are your clothes clean?'" Davenport said during the panel. "We have to deal with all of that before we can even begin to talk about [classroom topics like] trench warfare."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County educators say state's new limits on teaching about race leave them confused, concerned)


At the Partnership Network Advisory Board meeting on Oct. 28, Hamilton County Schools data analyst Becca Millott shared data measuring teacher retention percentages for the past six years.

Between the 2018-19 and 2020-21 academic years, four out of five Partnership Network schools increased teacher retention, with Dalewood seeing the sharpest increase of 24 percentage points - from 63% of teachers being retained between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 academic years to 87% between 2019-20 and 2020-21.

However, in a reversal of the trend, Millott told the board the district anticipated a slight decline in teacher retention between 2020-21 and 2021-22.

Wages play a role in teacher retention, and conversations from the Southern Regional Education Board panel and the Partnership Network Advisory Board point out that differentiated pay has helped keep teachers on board.

Boren said the Southern Regional Education Board saw differentiated pay implemented in school districts through bonuses and loan forgiveness programs, most often for career and technical eduction and science and math subjects.

The differentiated pay plan in Hamilton County Schools entails paying educators more for working in high-need schools or hard-to-staff schools or subject areas, either through bonuses or as an increase in total pay reflected in each paycheck.

The largest pay increases are seen in "promise schools," identified as schools where at least 97% of students fall into "super subgroup" status. Super subgroup is a term used by the Tennessee Department of Education for students who are part of one or more historically underserved subgroups:

- Black, Hispanic and Native American students.

- Students with disabilities.

- Economically disadvantaged students.

- English language learners.

In Hamilton County, 13 schools fall into this category, including the Partnership Network schools and schools where Project Inspire residents work.

Through the district's differentiated pay plan, STEM teachers working at secondary promise schools can earn 20% more in their total pay since math and science for grades 6-12 are marked as "hardest to staff."

Principals of Partnership Network schools attributed the differentiated compensation model with helping to keep teachers on board at their schools.

"With last year being my first year and having to retain staff, the differentiated compensation piece was a major piece for us," Dalewood Middle School Principal Rashaad Williams said during the Partnership Network meeting.

"[For] those positions, key people we want to retain in the building, being able to introduce that was a key lever in holding people in the building for sure. Their work actually being honored in their compensation meant a lot to the folks in the building in being able to keep them here."

Vonetta Maston, principal of Orchard Knob Elementary, told the Partnership Network Advisory Board that differentiated pay has helped her recruit veteran teachers and highly experienced teachers to the school. She said those teachers are resourceful and help cultivate a sense of belonging for students in the classroom.

"One of the key points of getting them on board was the differentiated pay that was offered, and then just their wanting to be part of what's happening at [Orchard Knob]," Maston said.

Nakia Towns, interim superintendent, told the board that the differentiated pay policy for this school year is entirely funded by $6 million in federal coronavirus relief funds - one-time funding that will eventually run out.

She asked the board to consider future funding as the district prepares for a new superintendent and the 2022 school board and county commission elections.

"So I say to you as we think about the transition that we need to elevate this conversation around [if we will] continue to prioritize this investment. Because the gains we have made, leadership matters, but that leadership needs to be able to attract and retain talent in their buildings," Towns said.


In Hamilton County, both new and ongoing programs are targeting teacher diversity and retention.

Diamond Kelley, principal of Chattanooga Preparatory School and another panelist at the Teacher Diversity Forum, said diversity enables students and teachers to more easily relate to one another and understand different viewpoints.

"It goes back to students and being able to teach them how to respectfully disagree or respectfully agree with someone, and the only way you're going to do that is relatability, building those relationships," Kelley said during the panel.

"It's all wrapped around being able to relate to that person in front of you: this person is not more than me, I can go to them and talk to them about some issues, they understand where I'm coming from. It's relatability."

Project Inspire received an $84,000 grant in May to focus on the recruitment of Black teachers. In June, Lipscomb University, a partner of Hamilton County Schools, received $100,000 to further strengthen the Grow Your Own teacher preparation program.

Most recently, the Hamilton County Education Association and the school district began working together on a grant proposal to the National Education Association Foundation that would address both issues.

Jeanette Omarkhail, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, told the Board of Education that the grant, if awarded, would provide about $250,000 per year for three years to develop a program aimed at supporting early career educators.

The program would target teachers in their first through fifth years in the profession through mentorship, professional development and guidance on navigating certain topics in the classroom - especially for new teachers of color.

"For students, exposure to an educator who looks like them can change the way they experience education," Omarkhail said. "Educators serve as strong role models and raise expectations for learning through relationships with students and their families."

Wright said something similar at the Teacher Diversity Forum - that if you asked educators what they thought is the most important aspect of their jobs, any teacher would say building relationships.

"If students of color don't see teachers of color, they have limited relationships in those buildings," Wright said. "Students learn better when they have relationships with the people teaching them."

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.