As the Tennessee Department of Education determines how it will intervene in five of Hamilton County's lowest- performing schools, the state is getting feedback from community members invested in the schools through several meetings this week.
"We want to work with the community to chart a path forward to ensure every child has the chance to be successful at whatever they choose to do," Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Monday.
McQueen previously told the Hamilton County Board of Education it must decide whether it is willing to work with the state to create a Partnership Zone or allow her office to place at least some of the schools in the state-run Achievement School District.
During the last five years, these schools — Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Woodmore Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Orchard Knob Elementary — have ranked in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide and have struggled to post academic progress under district leadership, despite receiving more than $10 million in additional state funds.
"Because our schools have been underperforming for several years, in fact, we were just talking about that it may be closer to 15 years, we believe the state needs to pursue new interventions," McQueen said, adding that the students deserve better opportunities.
The Partnership Zone is designed to provide the cluster of schools with additional autonomy and support, as it creates a separate mini-district with its own school board and director. Under the state's proposal, it would appoint 60 percent of the board and 40 percent would be chosen by Hamilton County Schools.
The Hamilton County school board members representing the five schools, known as priority or iZone schools, asked the state to hold these meetings, McQueen said, as they wanted parents and community leaders invested in the schools to have the chance to ask questions about the proposed Partnership Zone and share insights.
The meetings, which are being held at the Hamilton County Courthouse downtown, are closed to the public and media to give people a chance to talk candidly, McQueen said.
After the first meeting Monday, McQueen said she was encouraged, as the improvements people want to see were all possible.
Karitsa Mosley Jones, who represents three of the priority schools on the Hamilton County Board of Education, said she is open to discussing options that allow the schools to remain under Hamilton County's control and not be taken over by the state.
"Any option other than the [Achievement School District] is something I am willing to explore, as I truly believe Hamilton County can educate our own students," she said Monday. "We don't need anyone to tell us how to do that."
Mosley Jones selected a group of people from her district to meet with McQueen and members of her staff early Monday afternoon. She said she selected a mix of parents, mentors, nonprofit organization leaders and pastors who are actively involved in the schools to attend the meeting.
"We learned a lot from the community members present," she said after the meeting. "We did a lot of listening."
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger was also in the meeting and said he was glad stakeholders came together to talk about education, which he said is the most important issue in the county.
"What people really expect from these districts and schools that are underperforming are some solid results to give our young people an opportunity," Coppinger said. " There is a lot to work on. No conclusions were drawn today."
Coppinger said he appreciates the state officials' willingness to travel to Hamilton County numerous times to discuss options other than the Achievement School District.
McQueen previously told the board it needs to make a decision about whether it wants to establish the proposed Partnership Zone by this month, but that has now been moved back to August as the board is in the process of finalizing a contract with Bryan Johnson, its incoming superintendent.
McQueen has met with Johnson several times since the board voted to name him superintendent, and she said that for the Partnership Zone to be successful he'll have to be invested in the work and help lead it.
"He asks very thoughtful questions and certainly is going to make sure whatever we do is a true partnership," McQueen added. "I think those are all the right things that he is talking about and asking about, and he is certainly a great listener."
Test scores for the past school year are expected to be released in coming weeks.
McQueen said how each of the five schools did on standardized testing could influence decisions about what interventions are best for which schools.
Members of the Hamilton County school board have voiced concerns about the proposed plan, specifically that the state will name a majority of the Partnership Zone's board and will not contribute enough funding, adding an additional strain on the district's budget.
McQueen previously told the board the state would make a financial investment in the Partnership Zone, and said the state and the district both would need to take responsibility for the success of these schools.
On Monday, McQueen said the Partnership Zone would pair state support with local solutions to improve these schools through a joint-governance model.
"It's the middle way, and between what we would call the status-quo — what's currently happening — and full state takeover under the Achievement School District," she said. "We believe working together in this type of partnership will make us all stronger."