APEX project steering committee members
District 1: Lisa Bolus, Suzanne Ness, Steve Slater
District 2: Richard Graham, Annie Hall, Alayna Baker
District 3: Gladys Pineda-Loher, Jim Watson, Fran Quarles
District 4: Frida Uwimana, Samantha Boucher, Lili Reynolds
District 5: Jamie Petty, Michael R. Harris, Rodney Johnson
District 6: Ariel Ford, Lorean Mays, Tara Viland
District 7: Jessica T. Phillips, Tamarah R. Daniel, Reginald Gilmore
District 8: Elizabeth Tallman, Kimberly Mathis, Cary Garrett
District 9: Marie Dean, Jennie Moreland, Rachel Turner
After sifting through a pool of more than 100 applicants, local nonprofit UnifiEd has chosen 27 community members to aid in its efforts to promote equity throughout the county's 79 public schools.
The announcement comes as the next step in the education advocacy organization's Action Plan for Educational Excellence, or APEX, project. Launched in August with a series of discussion driven "EdTalk" gatherings, the project aims to craft a policy that would ensure all Hamilton County Schools students have the resources they need to succeed, regardless of socioeconomic status. Once completed, the policy will be submitted to elected officials in the hopes of implementation.
The 27 citizens selected will help lead that effort by serving as the APEX project's steering committee, made up of three representatives from each of the nine commission districts in Hamilton County.
"Our steering committee is comprised of an amazing group of community leaders who represent all geographic areas of our diverse county," said Ashley Conrad, director of policy and research at UnifiEd. "These parents, teachers, students and city and county leaders will be working together to share their expertise and ensure transparency and accountability throughout the creation of the policy platform."
Over the next few months, committee members will ensure the demands included in the equity-policy platform fully represent the ideas and experiences of residents in their districts, as well as the county as a whole.
The group will work toward that goal by facilitating conversations and EdTalks within their communities to determine citizens' priorities; sharing their experiences with inequities with other members of the committee; learning about the school system and visiting county schools; and working alongside UnifiEd to generate student-focused solutions to be built into the policy platform, which is expected to be released in February 2018.
Steering committee member Frida Uwimana, 18, who helps represent District 4, said she knows how much of a difference having proper resources can make for students. As a senior currently enrolled at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, she said the institution would still be a low-performing school if not for the intervention of CGLA Executive Director Elaine Swafford, whose leadership led to educational resources like take-home Chromebook laptops and payments for students' ACT registration fees.
Following Swafford's appointment, the charter school was named a Tennessee Reward School in 2013 and 2014 for being one of the top five percent of schools in the state for annual academic growth, and its students' average ACT score has jumped from 13.7 to 18.1. But not all schools are so lucky, Uwimana said. She pointed to the large difference between the level of education in public schools like Hamilton County Collegiate High School and The Howard School as an example.
"One school provides students with rigorous classes that better prepare them for college, and the other school provides students with [just enough to] help them pass their classes, but not necessarily prepare them for the challenging courses they will be faced with in college," Uwimana explained, adding that issues like these need to be voiced by programs like APEX in order to ensure equity. "I believe every child has the potential to succeed and thrive in society if they are given the proper resources."
Still, ending education inequity won't be the work of just one committee, but rather the entire community, said steering committee member Annie Hall, who formerly served as a member of the Hamilton County school board. She urges everyone to stay informed on the issue and get involved, whether through conversations with the APEX steering committee or other methods of advocacy outside UnifiEd.
"We can put Hamilton County on the map as a community with outstanding schools where everyone is a stakeholder in the academic success of every single student," said Hall, who helps represent District 2 on the steering committee. "I believe it is past time for our community to resolve the equity issue which has kept too many of our students from being successful in school. I applaud UnifiEd's commitment to address and resolve this issue once and for all."