This story was updated March 22, 2018, at 11:59 p.m.
Hamilton County Schools will launch an equity task force next month, consisting of educators, community members, parents, business leaders and elected officials to address students' universal access to support services across the district.
Marsha Drake, who was promoted to the school district's chief equity officer role last fall after Superintendent Bryan Johnson took the helm, said one of the purposes of the task force was to acknowledge that inequities exist.
"By looking into some of those best practices, we acknowledge that there are areas of inequities with the system and we are being more transparent to address those," Drake said.
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The task force's goals include making recommendations for improving services for minority and low-income students, reviewing programming for students with specific needs such as special education students or English language learners, and developing a framework to hold the district accountable.
"We want to look at our policies around the supports that we provide," said Chief of Staff T. Nakia Edwards Towns. "We are hearing from various community groups and we need a diverse group to synthesize some of those ideas."
Recommendations coming from outside community groups include two proposals presented to the board Thursday night by Jim Johnson, attorney for the local NAACP chapter. The chapter believes that 12 local schools — Brainerd High School, The Howard School and both schools' feeder patterns — are and have been historically segregated schools.
According to the group's fact sheet, and backed up by data from the 2017 State Report Card, 90 percent of the students at those 12 schools are black or Hispanic and most of them come from communities of concentrated poverty.
The proposals call for the board to devote about $500,000 in exploring school choice, or open enrollment, options for students across the district, as well as culturally responsive professional development in specific schools.
"Students attending these 12 schools have dramatically less academic success than students in other county schools. As a result, these children have dramatically lower expectations for success in life," Jim Johnson said.
He was encouraged by the district's creation of a task force, on which NAACP representatives will serve, though.
"We aren't saying this is easy and certainly one size doesn't fit all," Jim Johnson said.
Local community organizations like La Paz and UnifiEd have been working toward increasing equity in Hamilton County schools for some time. UnifiEd kicked off a bus tour last December to poll the community on its priorities and this spring, its also launching a working groups, the Equity Collective.
The district's announcement came the same night that UnifiEd hosted its own event addressing the topic of segregation in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, featuring renowned national expert on the topic and investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones.
"Equity was a focus of the community that came through loud and clear in our listening sessions across Hamilton County," said Bryan Johnson, in a statement. "This task force will help develop the framework to ensure that all students can access the opportunities and resources to help them succeed after graduation."
The kickoff meeting of the 34-member task force is scheduled for April 10.
Other highlights from Thursday night's school board meeting:
- As of Thursday, 176 employees had submitted their intentions to retire by the March 15 deadline. The board also voted to approve an individual appeal from a teacher who did not originally meet the requirements for the plan.
- In a budget presentation, Chief Business Officer Don Hall and Assistant Superintendent Christie Jordan announced an expected $5.6M in savings next year from the early retirement buyout.
- The board was provided with an update on last week's recruitment fair, which included more than 240 possible teacher candidates - 46 percent of whom were new graduates or would be first-year teachers if hired.
- More than $7.1 million in contracts for architects working on multiple capital projects was approved, including renovations and new additions to Harrison Elementary, East Hamilton Middle, Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, Howard High, Snow Hill Elementary and Tyner Middle and High schools.
- Nine full-time positions and 11 part-time positions were approved, contingent on state and federal funding through the PArtnership Network, for the Opportunity Zone schools.
- 1502 students have risen at least one reading level through the Opportunity Zone's new RISE literacy intervention program this school year.
- Chief Schools Officer Justin Robertson unveiled the new organizational chart and restructuring of the district's Teaching and Learning department which centers around the four new zones the district will be broken up into and the addition of a Middle School Director.
- Community school coordinators Melissa Graham and John Cunningham unveiled plans to pilot community school models in 4 Opportunity Zone schools next year.