State education chief: Leaders must work urgently to improve county's worst schools

State education chief: Leaders must work urgently to improve county's worst schools

September 21st, 2016 by Kendi A. Rainwater in Local Regional News

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 9/20/16. The public and media attend Education Mini-Summit 2016 at the Volkswagen Conference Center on September 20, where Tennessee legislators from Hamilton County and local education officials discuss the county's public school system. The district is producing lower-than-expected test results and have Teacher's rated least effective by state measures.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Gallery: State's education commissioner attends summit in Chattanooga

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Participants in Tuesday's summit

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson

State Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga

State Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah

Executive Director of UnifiEd Jonas Barriere

Apison Elementary School Principal Ron Hughes

Chattanooga 2.0 Coordinator Jared Bigham

Chattanooga State Christina Conn

Hamilton County Commissioner Sabrena Smedley

State Rep. Patsy Hazelwood, R-Signal Mountain

Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga

Hamilton County PTA President LeeAnn Hammer

United Way of Greater Chattanooga CEO Lesley Scearce

Director of UTC’s school of education Renee Murley

Public Education Foundation President Dan Challener

Hamilton County Schools Literacy Coach Jennifer Knowles

Hamilton County school board member Rhonda Thurman

State Rep. Marc Gravitt, R-East Ridge

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga

The state's top education leader applauded the willingness of many in the community across Hamilton County to be involved in the work of improving public education, but she told school district leaders they have a lot of work to do.

Highlighting the district's five priority schools, which rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the district needs to work urgently to improve these schools.

Hamilton County's five priority schools have received $13 million in school improvement grants since 2013, and McQueen said the state is "not seeing the improvements we have seen with our other priority schools."

McQueen's comments came at the end of a nearly 90-minute education summit, convened Tuesday at Volkswagen by the Hamilton County's legislative delegation.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said lawmakers invited themselves into the conversation about education in Hamilton County and expect to see results.

"The role of the delegation is to set [state] policy," Gardenhire said, noting that while lawmakers are often criticized for "meddling" in local issues, improvements in local education require "us to be a bit more engaged."

McQueen also challenged leaders of Hamilton County Schools to develop a plan for the future.

"Create your plan around the right vision, have some metrics and align to the right goals and make sure your human capital is attached to that," McQueen said.

Noting Chattanooga's reputation for innovation, McQueen urged district leaders to incorporate creative approaches into their plan.

Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly said after the meeting he thinks the district is "right on track." An urgency already exists around improving priority schools, he said, adding he hopes this will be reflected in test data in coming years.

"We have been aware and looking to help our priority schools," Kelly said.

The district has taken steps to improve literacy in these schools and has put some new leadership in place, Kelly said, saying he is optimistic these changes will help improve the priority schools.

The state sent a report to Hamilton County Schools earlier this year voicing concern about the lack of results posted by the priority schools, stating that district has an unfocused approach to improving the priority schools. The report also noted how the school system did not spend all the money provided through the grants.

Kelly also said he and his leadership team have developed a five-point plan for the school system, and that improving low-performing schools is a part of that plan.

The plan also includes an emphasis on engagement, improving communication, climate and culture, a focus on literacy and career and technical education.

During Tuesday's meeting, State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said the state is the largest investor in the Hamilton County Department of Education, and the delegation is committed to staying engaged in public education here.

State Sen. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, also brought up the topic of education funding.

"When is it enough?" he asked. "Is money the real problem?"

It was never mentioned during the meeting, but the Hamilton County Board of Education is suing the state, claiming it does not adequately fund public education.

Jennifer Knowles, a literacy coach with the district and participant in Tuesday's discussion, said providing increased support for teachers is needed. She urged attendees of the meeting to think of ways to entice teachers to stay in the classroom, adding that teachers across Hamilton County are working hard and care about their students' success.

"The teachers are a critical piece in this conversation, and I hope that if we continue these conversations we'll get more toward action," she said.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.