Hamilton County Schools' Equity Task force is proceeding with bringing in national consultants to help the district and community partners create a plan to tackle inequities within district schools.
The task force's meeting Wednesday morning, which was not open to the public or the media despite a request by the Times Free Press, was its third meeting since it was announced in March.
It was also the first time members of group had come together since the school board approved the district's efforts to seek private funds to bring in the Howard Group, a consulting firm, to provide cultural competency training to county educators and develop a framework for an equity plan.
First though, the district plans on engaging with the Massachusetts-based firm, Alves Educational Consultants Group, to develop a plan for what the task force hopes to accomplish, said T. Nakia Towns Edwards, the district's chief of staff.
Michael Alves, president of the firm, agreed to join the task force at its next meeting at the end of the month, to help facilitate that meeting and to lay out a plan for the work, Towns Edwards said.
At this point, no dollars have been spent — or raised — on bringing the consultants to town, though the task force will not have to return to the board for further approval of an agreement with Alves, according to district officials, based on the May 24 vote.
"What the board had said, provided there is no funding that they have to provide, what they voted on is they had given us permission to pursue a relationship with the Alves group and The Howard Group," Towns Edwards said. "I don't anticipate we will have to go back and get approval because they have given us permission to enter into a relationship for facilitating the task force and to pursue external funds for that."
Board Chairman Steve Highlander was uncertain if such a plan would not have to be approved again by the board, but the school board attorney was unavailable to provide clarity Wednesday.
Superintendent Bryan Johnson said bringing in outside experts will allow for different perspectives, as well as a deeper understanding of what equity is.
"Equity is such a complex conversation. One of those things that you want is that expertise that has seen it in different realms or different ways in different places," Johnson said. "It's not about black or white, it's not about rich or poor, it's about what's best for every single child."
Alves' group will work with the task force to develop recommendations that will eventually go before the school board itself for approval. Those could include aspects such as the development of a controlled-choice plan or open enrollment, cultural competency training like the type The Howard Group provides, and more.
Dan Liner, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, said he was looking forward to the expertise coming to guide the task force's work.
"I am fine with regard to where we are as a task force simply because we are a work in progress," Liner said. "This is a very strategic way of addressing inequity."
The board's vote came after several weeks of controversy related to statements released by board members Joe Smith, of District 3, and Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, denouncing local education advocacy group, UnifiEd's call for socioeconomic integration in a report presented to the board. The Howard and Alves groups were both consulting firms originally presented to the board in a proposal from the NAACP that also addressed the desegregation of Hamilton County schools and was presented to the board earlier this spring.
Both UnifiEd and the local chapter of the NAACP are encouraged by the progress made by the school system in recent weeks.
"We fully support HCDE's efforts to prioritize educational equity through their newly formed Equity Task Force," said Ashley Conrad, director of policy and research for UnifiEd and an equity task force member, in a statement. "We also support the school board's decision for outside consultants to facilitate the process to develop an action plan. These facilitators can engage task force participants in an interactive process to develop tangible action steps that ensure all students receive an excellent education regardless of their background or ZIP Code."
Jim Johnson of the NAACP also said he was pleased with the progress, but did not want to prejudge the outcome.
"We were very pleased with the board's vote, and that it was an 8-1 vote. It's in the hands of the district to now develop that relationship,"he said. "It's out of our hands ... [but] we will certainly be watching it."
In March, the NAACP presented a nearly $500,000 proposal for the district to bring in both consulting groups to work on what the organization identified as segregation in 12 of the district's schools. At the time, the proposal did not prompt much discussion, but since the task force was created, it has been charged with addressing equity issues not limited to race or poverty, but related to special education, discipline, and English language learners as well.
Though the task force was originally slated to meet about half a dozen times and present recommendations to the board in late summer, both Bryan Johnson and Towns Edwards anticipate that timeline will be adjusted.
The superintendent did note that Marsha Drake, the district's chief equity officer, will present a public update at the school board's June and July meetings on the task force's progress, sharing timelines and important data points.
Towns Edwards emphasizes that all the work with the consultants ultimately will guide the task force to find ways for all students to be successful.
"We are trying to meet the needs of individual students such that they can reach their highest potential ... so when we see patterns of students that don't meet [that] potential ... that's something that we are trying to address."
Though the district has not secured funds yet for the Alves' group's June visit, Towns Edwards predicts the cost to be about $10,000 for travel and two full days of meetings and facilitation. A further estimate for prolonged work has not been developed.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the Hamilton County Schools Chief of Staff's name as Nakia Edwards Towns. Her name is Nakia Towns Edwards.