From left, Jonas Barriere UnifiED Executive Director, David Eichenthal UnifiEd Board Member, listen to Dr. John Marshall chief equity officer for Jefferson County, Kentucky Public Schools before Mr. Marshall's presentation. UnifiED launched APEX, an Action Plan for Educational Excellence at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center on Aug. 1, 2017.

UnifiEd is taking on the elephant in the classroom, and that is the "E" word, longtime Hamilton County educator Edna Varner said.

"It's taking on equity," she said Tuesday night, during an event for the local education advocacy nonprofit organization.

Varner, a member of UnifiEd's board, said Chattanooga has experienced a renaissance in many areas — it's known as the "Gig City" and has been named the best outdoor city in America — but schools and students have been left behind.

"We are going to do something about it, and it's called the Action Plan for Educational Excellence," Varner said.

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UnifiED Board Member Edna Varner addresses the group before the start of Dr. John Marshall's presentation. UnifiEd launched APEX, an Action Plan for Educational Excellence at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center on Aug. 1, 2017.

UnifiEd launched APEX Tuesday night during an event that brought together more than 150 people from across the county to learn about and discuss the inequities that exist in Hamilton County Schools and challenge them to help make a change.

Jonas Barriere, executive director of UnifiEd, shared data comparing some of the county's schools, showing the wide proficiency gaps and discrepancies in student outcomes among them. In coming months, he said, UnifiEd plans to help the community develop a policy platform to tackle these problems and boost outcomes for all students.

John Marshall, chief equity officer for Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky, was the keynote speaker of the event, talking about the work his district is doing to help all students be successful regardless of background or situation. The district, which includes Louisville, is known across the nation as a district not shying away from discussions about race and why some students aren't given the same opportunities as others.


Marshall challenged all of Hamilton County to confront the school district's data and the discrepancies that exist, and to do something about it. The community should not just be blaming the school system or poverty for its underperforming schools, he added.

"Equity data changes by commitment," Marshall said. "... Don't bring me another committee, bring a commitment to do what's right."

Jefferson County Public Schools created an Equity Scorecard that gives an honest picture about each school, highlighting things such as proficiency rates, culture, discipline, and college and career readiness of graduates.

"We have to own that data," he said, encouraging Hamilton County to make similar data accessible. "Hold everyone accountable to the data, including yourself."

Marshall voiced excitement about APEX and UnifiEd's plan to promote transparency and action.

"Equity does not have to be hard, it has to be brave," he repeated throughout the evening.

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