Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen's tenure leading the state's education department was filled with many challenges, including creating a plan for implementing new federal education law, increasing the rigor of state standards and several years of testing debacles.
But one of the biggest hurdles McQueen worked to overcome, and potentially one of the legacies of her leadership under Gov. Bill Haslam, was the fight right here in Hamilton County over what to do with the community's historically failing schools.
"Over the past four years, there has been so much that has happened statewide, and I think Hamilton County is a reflection of that," McQueen said during a meeting with editors and reporters at the Times Free Press on Dec. 3. "One of the pieces of work that we are most confident in, is that Hamilton County will benefit from the state plan for improvement."
'There is not an option for no decision'
For more than a year, McQueen and Hamilton County Schools, the school board and community members were locked in a contentious debate. The state had invested more than $10 million into the district's what were then called iZone schools — Brainerd High School, Dalewood Middle School, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary — but had seen little improvement in student achievement.
A glaring report, visits by the commissioner and state department teams and community meetings ensued, culminating in a threat from McQueen that the state would take over the schools and add them to the Achievement School District, the state-run district for schools that fall into the bottom 5 percent all schools.
But the state had already learned a great deal from the Achievement School District and iZone schools — lessons that have recently been highlighted in research by Gary Henry, a Vanderbilt professor, and presented by the state — and McQueen offered collaborative efforts as options, as well, which the board ultimately approved.
"This is a moment where the community has to look at options and opportunities," McQueen said in 2017. " Let's be good-will people, come to the table, look at those options and say, 'What's going to be the best way for our community to serve all kids?'"
Starting with the 2018-19 school year, the state and the district launched a nationally unique model, the State Partnership network, and locked into a five-year agreement to improve those schools together.
"She has pushed and challenged us, and I appreciate the way she has continued to challenge us to raise the bar for children, and she's been unapologetic about it," said Bryan Johnson, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools.
Moving forward with the Partnership Network
McQueen said she has developed closer relationships with the Hamilton County school board than possibly any other board in the state. And she's confident the Partnership Network is set up for success.
"The work here [in Hamilton County] is codified in a way that might be unusual. We put it in an memorandum of understanding [MOU] so we all know there's an understanding of what all of our expectations are," she said. "It would be difficult to hide from the MOU or metrics that we have in place."
Some of the metrics the state will monitor each year include quality of the teachers and instruction in the five schools, school attendance rates, discipline rates and student achievement including readiness for college and careers.
Many of these measurements are also ways schools statewide will be measured under the state's new Every Student Succeeds Act plan that McQueen presented and was approved by Congress.
"We ultimately knew we had to make a change. What we were doing was not working. Sometimes you have to be a little provocative," she said.
Henry, who has spent years researching school turnaround and improvement, said the partnership in Hamilton County, which includes an advisory board with members appointed by the district and the state, and a state employee that works as a liaison between the two, is unique.
"It is innovative in a way that no one else is doing in the country. I really feel like that there is a recognition here that things need to be done differently to see something happen," Henry said.
Moving forward, McQueen said she is not sure if the state will find that the partnership model or a complete takeover is more effective, but both options are written into the state's plan for improving schools. She has also placed Sharon Griffin, the lauded leader of the Achievement School District, in charge of this work, citing Griffin's understanding of the importance of focusing on the work in Chattanooga.
Equity for all students
McQueen, who announced last month that she would step down from her role in January to lead the Nashville base of the nonprofit National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, said the biggest thing districts need to focus on in the coming years is equity.
"The conversation around equity no matter how it's had, needs to be had in a variety of ways," McQueen said. "You need lots of feedback from individual groups the lesson learned is that all the people needed to be engaged in that conversation."
Ensuring students across different schools and from different backgrounds have the same access to educational opportunities, funding and resources is part of that conversation.
"If a leader of an urban district is doing the right work, then they are constantly looking through a lens of which students need the right supports, the right academics, the right activities," she said. "There is a focus we have to continue to place on equitable distribution of resources based on needs."
School turnaround is not a quick process, McQueen acknowledged, which is why Hamilton County and the state's agreement is a five-year one, and McQueen cautions that "activity does not equate to outcomes," but the success of the network should be seen in actual results, actual student outcomes.
"If it's not getting the outcome, it doesn't really matter," she said.
Haslam said he would name an interim education commissioner to take over after McQueen's departure, but Gov.-elect Bill Lee will appoint his own commissioner when he takes office in January.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.