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Hamilton County Department of Education headquarters
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Rick Smith is the superintendent of Hamilton County Schools.


The school innovation zone is a grant-funded district-within-a-district approach to school turnaround. Statewide, the lowest performing five percent of schools are eligible to apply for i-zone grants, which allow them to reshape curriculum, add programs, change faculties and extend the school day or year, among other reforms.

Hamilton County i-zone schools

Brainerd High

Dalewood Middle

Orchard Knob Elementary

Orchard Knob Middle

Woodmore Elementary

Dozens of Hamilton County teachers are interviewing to keep their jobs as part of an effort to turn around the district's lowest-performing schools.

Superintendent Rick Smith said Friday administrators are rebuilding their teaching staffs at the five schools.

Teachers of "core content" -- math, science, reading and social studies -- were asked to reapply for their jobs. If not rehired, tenured teachers will be guaranteed a position in another county school. Non-tenured teachers have no such assurance.

Teachers were notified of the change before Christmas break, and principals are interviewing them now. To keep their jobs, teachers must receive a score of 3, 4 or 5 on the district's five-point evaluation system, which combines administrator's classroom observations with test scores and other student data.

Hamilton County's i-zone schools collectively are applying for a multimillion-dollar state School Innovation Zone grant, which is funded through the federal multibillion-dollar School Improvement Grant program. Smith estimates the district could receive about $4.5 million. The state denied Hamilton County's application for the grant last year. But state officials gave the district $500,000 for a "planning year" to perfect its grant application. Smith expects to learn if the state OKs the district's new application in coming weeks.

The grant money will help the i-zone recruit and retain quality teachers, provide increased teacher training and help pay for more hours of classroom instruction. All of that is meant to improve the schools' student achievement, which lags considerably behind that of other students in the county and state.

With or without the grant, Smith said the five schools must have highly effective teachers to improve their historically low achievement levels.

"Underperforming schools need quality in numbers," he said. "You need capacity. You don't need just one or two outstanding teachers. You need the majority of the faculty to be outstanding."

The schools also will add 300 hours of additional instruction, either through an extended school day, an extended school year or a combination of both. Teachers will receive adjusted salaries for the extra hours. But they'll also be eligible for big bonuses.

Some i-zone teachers already are eligible for bonuses. But, if the i-zone grant is received, the district will offer more incentives. Some teachers could receive as much as an extra $13,000 -- on top of their base salary and salary adjustment for extended hours.

While such a shakeup in a school's teaching ranks -- or just the uncertainty -- could dampen the mood among faculty, the extra incentives are improving morale at Orchard Knob Elementary, said Principal LaFrederick Thirkill. He said only one or two of his teachers will change positions. That's because the school already has seen a large turnover in the past two years, which effectively created a new faculty.

"So reconstitution here has been pretty smooth because the majority of our teachers are highly effective teachers and have a strong desire to stay here," he said.

Thirkill said he's confident the current group of Orchard Knob teachers will improve the school's scores quickly enough to lift it out of the i-zone.

"They're already in the trenches," he said. "They're already doing the work. And they're not doing it for money. So to give them an incentive for things they're already doing makes them pretty happy. They're eager to come back."