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Former U.S. Education Secretary John King speaks during a breakout session at Orchard Knob Middle School during Hamilton County Schools' Urban Education Institute on Monday, Aug. 6, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Urban Education Institute provided a full day of professional development for supporting the educators of Opportunity Zone schools.
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Exceptional Education Supervisor Celeste McKenzie, top center, speaks with former U.S. Education Secretary John King, top right, during a breakout session at Orchard Knob Middle School during Hamilton County Schools' Urban Education Institute on Monday, Aug. 6, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Urban Education Institute provided a full day of professional development for supporting the educators of Opportunity Zone schools.

The Opportunity Zone schools:

Brainerd High

Dalewood Middle

Hardy Elementary

Woodmore Elementary

Barger Elementary

Howard High

East Lake Middle

Orchard Knob Elementary

Calvin Donaldson Elementary

Clifton Hills Elementary

East Lake Elementary

Orchard Knob Middle

A panel featuring a retired educator, a preacher and a former gang member spoke Monday about the culture and challenges of living in Chattanooga's urban neighborhoods.

Two teams of elementary school teachers faced off in a "Family Feud"-style game reviewing literacy strategies for their classrooms.

Five recent graduates talked about what they wish their teachers had known when they were still sitting in classrooms within Hamilton County's public schools.

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Clifton Hills teacher Cora Fisher, top left, looks on while former U.S. Education Secretary John King, top right, speaks during their "fireside chat" at Orchard Knob Middle School during Hamilton County Schools' Urban Education Institute on Monday, Aug. 6, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Urban Education Institute provided a full day of professional development for supporting the educators of Opportunity Zone schools.

These were some of the more than 80 speakers, including former U.S. Education Secretary John King, that presented at an institute geared toward urban educators hosted by Hamilton County Schools.

The Urban Education Institute brought together more than 600 educators from the district's 12 Opportunity Zone schools on the first systemwide professional development day of the school year.

The topics, ranging from race relations in Chattanooga and the art and science of teaching boys to building relations with families to support students, were meant to hit home for teachers in the county's highest-needs and lowest-performing schools.

"As educators, there are many factors that are out of our control, but we must hold on to the factors that we can control," said Bria Sibley, a first grade teacher at Orchard Knob Elementary School and a member of the Urban Education Institute planning committee. "We understand that we work in the most challenging schools in Hamilton County. Our teachers must be equipped with patience, compassion and love."

King previously visited Chattanooga in 2016 as part of his Opportunity Across America 2016 bus tour. At the time the nation's highest-ranking education official, he spoke about teacher leadership and community initiatives to help schools.

On Monday, his message was similar as he addressed recruiting teachers of color, how principals can be advocates in their communities, and tried to instill messages of encouragement and hope in teachers who work with students predominately from communities riddled with poverty and violence.

"I just want to say thank you for the work you do, for the important work you do on behalf of kids," King said.

Of the challenging work of school turnaround, there is "no silver bullet," he added.

"There is a false debate today: is it school that matters or what happens outside of school that matters? We can all agree that the kid who is hungry is going to have challenges in class. At the same time we can't say, if kids are poor, there's nothing that we can do," King said. "We need to be activists in the community and insist there is more that we can do on behalf of our kids."

Last fall, Superintendent Bryan Johnson launched the Opportunity Zone in an effort to combat systematic problems in the Brainerd and Howard high school feeder schools. At the time, five of the schools were at risk of a state takeover because of historic low performance that spanned decades. They since been included in the Partnership Network initiative with the state.

While educators gathered across the district to prepare for the school year, discussing secondary science or brushing up on English standards, Jill Levine, chief of the Opportunity Zone, wanted those teachers to be especially revved up for the school year.

"Teaching in challenging circumstances can tear up your own heart. There will never be a perfectly easy day, the problems are at times overwhelming but the potential and the opportunity to help is incredible I believe that is why all of us are here," Levine said. All of us want to make things better All of us choose to teach for opportunity. Alone we can make a small difference for a few; together, collectively we can improve the outcome for 6,500 kids."

Many of the community members and panelists invited to speak with educators helped outline some of the realities — and opportunities — in the lives of children growing up in urban Chattanooga neighborhoods.

"Most of the violence happens here in East Chattanooga," said Troy Rogers, the city's public safety coordinator. "And that impacts your students that's what they see."

So teachers become the first line of defense and sometimes the only point of stability in a child's life, emphasized Rogers and his fellow panelists during a session called "Understanding the Urban Culture of Chattanooga."

"There is no way we can do what we do without a calling," Rogers added.

Retired educator and longtime educator advocate Edna Varner, senior advisor of leading and learning for the Public Education Foundation, said it was educators' role to help students get access to opportunities they might not have in their communities.

"There is plenty of opportunity for the urban core to access and benefit from [resources]," she said. "So what we have to be about is seizing it and knowing we can."

During a question-and-answer question with King, nominated educators got to talk about not only the challenges their students face, but the challenges teachers of color face working in the school district.

Research shows that students of color, and white students, benefit from learning from teachers of color. Only two percent of teachers nationwide are black males.

King advised the group, which will soon launch a recruitment and retention strategy for the Opportunity Zone, to build early pipelines of educators, work with local teacher preparation programs such as colleges and universities and reach out to local businesses.

"There's no problem that we have around race and class in our society that won't be solved by working together across race and class," he said.

Rachel Burgess, a literacy coach at Orchard Knob Middle School (where the institute was hosted), said the institute was motivating.

"It's energizing because we know what our kids need and every speaker and facilitator are providing things that are relevant to kids," she said.

King said it was obvious that there was energy around the school improvement efforts going on in Chattanooga, even though the Opportunity Zone is in its infancy.

"This energy around the Opportunity Zone is laying the foundation, and even though it's in the early stages there is momentum," he said.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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