Big gains sought in student achievement at Hamilton County's five iZone schools

Big gains sought in student achievement at Hamilton County's five iZone schools

July 22nd, 2013 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

Eighth-grade math teacher Whitney Bradford walks and talks with Crystal Sorrells, principal at Orchard Knob Middle School, on Wednesday as the instructors prepare their rooms for the first day of school.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.


• Brainerd High School

• Dalewood Middle

• Orchard Knob Elementary

• Orchard Knob Middle

• Woodmore Elementary


In the 2012-13 school year the five iZone schools had 103 teachers of core subjects -- math, reading/language arts, science and social studies. This fall, 62 of those teachers -- or about 60 percent -- have been replaced. Brainerd High saw the largest turnover in its staff.

Source: Hamilton County Schools iZone

The status quo is a no-go for Hamilton County's five iZone schools.

When school starts on Aug. 8, officials are hoping that everything will look and feel different at those schools, which were grouped together for perpetual underperformance.

With an infusion of cash, those schools are preparing to roll out a slew of changes this fall.

The days will be longer. Teachers will earn heftier paychecks, and some will compete for bonuses. New staff members, software and programs will fill the halls. And the infusion of iPads and other tools like interactive white boards will be a much-welcomed addition at the mostly poor and mostly black schools. It could even put those schools ahead of the district's own technology push.

But maybe most importantly, principals say their newly formed staffs -- from the bookkeepers to the biology teachers -- are more committed than ever to realizing big gains in student achievement.

Part of the $10 million-plus iZone grant required turnover in school faculties. Those who wanted to stay had to reapply for their jobs, which officials said helped to keep highly motivated staff members. Because working in inner-city schools, working against the pull of poverty, is hard work. And it's not for everybody.

"It is definitely a change in mindset," said Crystal Sorrells, principal of Orchard Knob Middle School.

Teachers are so excited, Sorrells said, they've spent much of the summer planning and preparing classrooms for the inaugural year of the iZone. Some 300 staff members got an enthusiasm boost at the summer iZone Institute, and teachers and principals have spent weeks in training programs.

The five iZone schools were eligible for the hefty state grant after being labeled among the bottom five percent of Tennessee schools for state assessment performance. And ultimately the reforms are intended to reverse that pattern.

"We're trying to do some unique things with the iZone program because we feel like it's necessary," Superintendent Rick Smith said.

The most visible change will be the two days a week when the 2,300 or so iZone students stay late. The extended day will mean an extra three-and-a-half hours a week of instruction. And that extra time is meant to supplement and reinforce what's already going on in the classroom.

While the iZone is ultimately aimed at turning around the trajectory of troubled schools, its methods seem to point at the future of school reform efforts. The pay scale for teachers is differentiated, with several layers of performance bonuses built in -- bucking the traditional pay schemes where all teachers are paid the same based solely on their educational level and years of experience. Tennessee's education commissioner recently came under fire for opening the door to pay-for-performance programs, which he argued would help recruit teachers.

But officials are urging against reading too much into the changes.

After all, things like iPads and revised schedules don't by themselves equate to higher test scores.

"Those structural changes alone I don't think will make the difference," said Robert Sharpe, assistant superintendent for education and leadership. "The difference maker -- we've known this for years -- is the quality of instruction that goes on in the classroom. So you can extend the day, but you've got to have good instruction in the classroom. That's the challenge."

The iZone grant allows schools to largely pick themselves what programs to invest in. So the schools are implementing their own reforms and ideas.

Some highlights include:

• Orchard Knob Elementary will offer parenting classes and is adding 13 support staff members through various grant funds.

Woodmore Elementary is sprucing up its campus with paint days and campus clean-up days.

• Orchard Knob Middle is revamping a special education program and just wrapped up a free computer class for senior citizens in exchange for 10 volunteer hours.

• And Brainerd High is holding pep rallies celebrating good attendance and academic achievement. The school has seen a giant shakeup in staff, with about 65 percent of employees including core teachers, special education instructors and part-time staffers revolving in and out. Even legendary coaches were swapped out in Brainerd's overhaul effort. Discipline matters are more in check, and the school culture is one that's now focused more on academics, said iZone Director LeAndrea Ware.

"It's going to be a very different place," she said.

• At Dalewood Middle School, teachers will have more technology to work with than ever before. The school has purchased new software that will help quickly identify which concepts kids are struggling in, and it will add new interactive white boards and teacher iPads.

"Kids are going to have access to a lot more technology in the classroom," Principal Christian Earl said.

Less tangibly, Earl said the school's culture should feel different in the fall. Teachers and assistants truly want to be at the school. And they spent several days this summer at a high-octane iZone Institute getting trained and pumped up for the first year in the turnaround effort.

"Everybody's excited and generally ready for the kids to come," he said. "The staff is excited about their jobs and the work we're doing together."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or 423-757-6249.