Former U.S. Secretary of Education John King, left, talks to first-year principals in the library at Battle Academy in this 2017 file photograph. Jill Levine, right, now is the chief of the Hamilton County Schools' Opportunity Zone.

A team of Hamilton County educators has been working for months to put together a daylong institute aimed at addressing some of the challenges teachers face in the district's highest-needs schools.

The school system's first Urban Teacher Institute will take place Aug. 6 as teachers prepare for the upcoming school year. It will feature dozens of sessions as well as speakers and community leaders, including former U.S. Secretary of Education John King.

Brandon Hubbard-Heitz, secondary literacy coach and one of the organizers of the institute, said the idea for such an institute came about as leaders of the Opportunity Zone began to brainstorm what they needed to do to equip faculty to better educate their students.

"Our students' lives and interests don't always align with our faculty's lives and interests," he said.

Last fall, the Opportunity Zone, made up of the district's 12 highest-needs schools, was established under Superintendent Bryan Johnson's new leadership as pressure mounted from the state on how to support the failing schools. Five of the zone's schools, previously the iZone, are part of the State Partnership Network — an agreement approved this spring that includes more funding and resources, as well as oversight from the state in those five schools.

The institute, which has been planned and organized by a committee of Opportunity Zone teachers, is one of the results of that partnership. It is funded in part by private donations and through federal grants directed to the Partnership Network.

Its vision is to provide support for educators in those schools and will include topics ranging from classroom management and instruction to culturally relevant curriculum and adverse childhood experiences. King, who has previously visited Chattanooga, will serve as the keynote speaker and lead breakout sessions during the afternoon.

In 2016, King visited Battle Academy, where he hosted a panel on teacher leadership as part of his Opportunity Across America 2016 bus tour.

"Ultimately, the goal of the institute is to find ways for our educators to better engage our students so they can build strong relationships with them," said Jill Levine, chief of the Opportunity Zone. "We knew we had to do something more for educators in the Opportunity Zone."

Sessions will include a student panel featuring current and recent graduates of Brainerd and Howard high schools, moderated by Orchard Knob Elementary School teacher Bria Sibley, who is also a graduate of the Opportunity Zone, something the organizers felt was vital to the mission behind the institute.

"You can't be student-centered if you don't know who your students are," Hubbard-Heitz said.

Celeste McKenzie, exceptional education supervisor, added that teachers who better understand their students are able to plan and engage with them at a deeper level.

"If our educators are able to understand the culture differences of our students, they will be able to plan better," she said. "I think teachers need to be able to understand where their students come from and why they do the things they do."

Institute organizers are particularly proud the agenda and topics covered were inspired by real teacher needs. The 11-member planning committee has been working since April after members were selected from more than 40 applicants.

"I'm really excited just for a chance for colleagues to be in a shared space with other people who are doing the same work that they are doing," said Cindy Kean, a math coach at Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy and a member of the planning committee. Kean, who has taught at Calvin Donaldson for seven years, said she was inspired to apply because she wanted to be a voice for her students on the south side of town. Kean describes her position at the school as "a dream."

"I think it is important for educators to understand what a privilege it is to teach in the Opportunity Zone," Kean said. "Part of the goal of the institute and the vision of the Opportunity Zone is to both have a clear vision for the schools and to equip those teachers, the same way those teachers should be equipped to teach at every Hamilton County school."

Opportunity Zone leadership, including Levine, have said it is a priority to develop such a culture within the 12 schools. Levine hopes adding positions such as new teacher coaches will attract and retain more teachers at schools that have historically faced high teacher turnover.

Ranita Glenn, a teacher at Hardy Elementary and another planning committee member, said she has already seen increased collaboration among schools and educators within the zone.

"You can see the change in the culture within the Opportunity Zone," Glenn said. "It has been refreshing to see how our urban schools are progressing."

The Aug. 6 institute itself is part of the required professional development that teachers attend before the school year. More than 500 educators from the Opportunity Zone will attend the institute, though it is not open to teachers from other Hamilton County schools.

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