Tennessee Education Commissioner Dr. Candice McQueen, right, shown conferring with Hamilton County Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson earlier this school year, testified this week on problems with the state's TNReady tests before the state legislature.

Partnership Network Schools

Brainerd High School

  • Dalewood Middle School
  • Orchard Knob Elementary
  • Orchard Knob Middle School
  • Woodmore Elementary

  • *Advisory Board Members

    • Valoria Armstrong, president of Tennessee American Water Co.
    • Wayne Brown, Woodmore community member and member of the Tennessee Parent/Teacher Association (PTA)
    • Ardena Garth, attorney and president of Chattanooga Endeavors
    • Patricia McKoy, retired Hamilton County educator, former Public Education Fund Leadership Fellow
    • Ernest L. Reid, Jr., pastor of Second Missionary Baptist Church
    • Gerald Webb, partner at Speek, Webb, Turner & Newkirk and alumnus of Woodmore Elementary School, Dalewood Middle School and Brainerd High School
    • Dakasha Winton, chief government relations officer at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and first vice chair of the board for the nonprofit Park Center in Nashville

    The seven-member board selected to advise Hamilton County Schools on how to improve its five worst-performing schools met publicly for the first time Tuesday night.

    The advisory board is one piece of the Partnership Network, the collaborative effort between the state Department of Education and the school district to improve Brainerd High School and four surrounding schools that had been on the state's list of lowest performing schools for years.

    Tuesday's meeting was meant to look at where the schools currently are, in regards to student achievement, test scores, absenteeism, student discipline and more, and figure out what the next steps are going forward.

    "This group of people has the task of how do we measure success. The challenges in these schools are somewhat well understood," said state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. "This was an excellent first meeting. What we heard from them was hope, but what I also heard from them was a sense of urgency."

    Ultimately, the district and the state need to come to an agreement on specific, measurable points to which the network will have to answer.

    Jill Levine, chief of the Opportunity Zone, was encouraged by the work the district has already done and the partners it has going forward.

    "We are so fortunate to have the partnership with the state, which is so positive and productive, and we're fortunate to have these seven individuals who understand the challenges of the work and are committed to help us move forward to provide better opportunities for our kids," Levine said.

    The Opportunity Zone was created by Superintendent Bryan Johnson last fall as a comprehensive effort to support 12 of the district's historically low-performing schools, five of which are part of the Partnership Network.

    The launch of the Opportunity Zone is one of the efforts credited with preventing a complete state takeover of Brainerd and the other four schools, which had been threatened in the past.

    Some of the data points the district presented to the advisory board included teachers' TVAAS scores from 2016-2017 and 2017-2018, data from a student engagement survey, absent rates and the numbers of students taking dual enrollment or Advanced Placement courses.

    Though the district highlighted growth — such as the newly-offered AP courses at Brainerd High School, which previously had known — but Advisory Board Chairman Gerald Webb pushed the district and the board to come up with clear targets.

    "What equals success for us? What equals success for Hamilton County? What needs to happen before we can go back to them and say "We're where we need to be, we are on the course to where we need to be?'" said Webb, a former prosecutor for the Hamilton County District Attorney's office and a current partner and attorney at Speek, Webb, Turner & Newkirk law firm.

    "We need to get parents involved in schools, we need to have strong leadership that we feel are engaged and we need teachers to feel like they are supported," he added.

    Valoria Armstrong, president of Tennessee American Water Co., also pressed the district to look at other school districts in Tennessee or across the nation that have successfully turned schools around.

    "When I look at Brainerd, it's really disheartening to me seeing our chronic absenteeism and seeing its results," she said.

    Chronic absenteeism is one of several federally-mandated points for which schools and districts are held accountable under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the most recent federal education law.

    Currently, 53.3 percent of Brainerd High School students missed 18 or more days of school. All of the leaders present agreed that was one of the biggest problems the district must address.

    Many of the students who miss the most school, McQueen said, are already part of marginalized groups, such economically-disadvantaged students and students of color.

    "When you have a third-grader not coming to school, you can determine that the issue is that a parent isn't ensuring they're coming to school when you have a 10th- and 11th-grader in school, the issue becomes more complex," Webb said.

    Regardless, Levine highlighted the many new additions to the Opportunity Zone, such as ramped up behavioral support, added school counselors, new teaching coaches, and community school partners, that the district feels will help address some of the systemic problems leading to under-performance.

    McQueen was also in Chattanooga for the second stop of Gov. Bill Haslam's TNReady listening tour at Soddy-Daisy High School earlier in the day.

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