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Teachers at East Lake Elementary hop on a bus for a tour Friday, July 26, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The tour gave new teachers the chance to tour the communities of the students they will be teaching.

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Teachers on bus tours

They filed onto the bus, laughing or whispering to someone near them. For some, it was their first day at East Lake Elementary, others have been at the school for years.

The bus driver greeted them as they took their seats, some hesitating before sitting down next to a stranger. Slowly, the driver advanced the bus and began the winding loop of the bus route through the neighborhoods that surround East Lake.

It's a scene repeated daily during the academic year, but on Friday there was a slight difference. The passengers weren't students, they were teachers.

"Our first stop is Wheeler Homes," said Joyce Lancaster, principal at East Lake Elementary. "[Emma] Wheeler Homes is one of the public housing projects in Chattanooga. We probably get about 100 kids from Wheeler."

The bus trip was part of an orientation for teachers new to East Lake Elementary — teachers who might have never taught at all before, teachers who had transferred from another school in Hamilton County or teachers who are new to Hamilton County.

In total, 22 of Hamilton County Schools' new school buses drove around neighborhoods on Friday, giving new teachers a tour of the communities where their students live.

"I didn't really know much before going into the bus tour," said Megan Vining, a first-year teacher at East Lake.

Vining graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in December and has been working as a kindergarten assistant at Red Bank Elementary, but she knows that East Lake and Red Bank are two very different schools in two very different communities.

"The bus tour really helped to give me a sense of the kids' lives outside of school," she said. "It's all new to me, it's different from what I'm used to."

Lancaster and her assistant principal, Martha McMillan, led the tour, that also drove past churches and community centers. It was organized by April Gregorcich, a fourth-grade teacher at the school and East Lake's site-based induction liaison, who is tasked with serving as a lead mentor for the school's newest teachers.

Gregorcich will help connect new teachers with their mentors and provide school-based new teacher network sessions as part of the district's overall strategy to improve teacher retention by supporting new teachers.

"Our teachers, a lot of us come from different backgrounds and we don't know what it's like or the needs of our students," Gregorcich said. "It was really good for them to see their neighborhoods."

As the bus rolled down 12th Avenue in East Chattanooga, Lancaster talked about the families and home lives of East Lake's students.

"What I've learned from a lot of the families is that they don't have to pay a deposit to move in, but then their rent is really high," Lancaster told the bus passengers as she pointed at houses they passed.

Many families live together in small homes or apartments. In Emma Wheeler Homes, most of the homes don't have central air and heat. Instead, window units in living rooms try fervently to cool the homes.

"The kids will tell you some stories you wouldn't believe," Lancaster said. "But believe it, because it's usually true."

Lancaster has worked at East Lake for 15 years, McMillan and Gregorcich have both been there about a decade. But the majority of East Lake's teachers are early in their careers, McMillan said. The school often has high turnover rates, but Lancaster wants her faculty to get to know the community nonetheless.

"We are a servant to this community, this is what I like to think of myself," she tells her newest colleagues. "These families, they love teachers and they want to connect to the school, but sometimes they don't always know how to."

East Lake Elementary is one of 13 schools in the district's Opportunity Zone, which is made up of the lowest-performing, highest-needs schools. More than 75% of the school's students live in poverty. The majority are students of color and the school has an ever-growing population of English language learners.

As culturally responsive education and equity training become larger parts of teacher preparation programs and professional development curriculum, most education experts will say it's important for teachers to get to know their students' backgrounds and families.

Jonathan Ramirez is a second-year teacher, but this school year will be his first at East Lake. He is a graduate of the Public Education Foundation's Project Inspire teacher residency and has worked at East Side Elementary and Orchard Knob Elementary.

Ramirez, who is originally from Mexico, lives in the neighborhood, near the school and Wheeler Homes. He hopes that his heritage and living in the community will help him connect with his students.

"It goes a long way. Students don't think teachers know what they go through, so if you know something about them and their families and their neighborhoods, it goes a long way and helps you build that trust with them," Ramirez said.

Gregorcich also said that these community tours help with community building among teachers and parents, and among teachers and staff at East Lake, as well.

"We want our teachers to feel connected to each other, to feel valued and to be knowledgeable about their communities and the kids in their classroom," she said.

This is the first year that any Hamilton County school has offered a tour for teachers and faculty. The district's new transportation vendor, First Student Inc., provided 22 buses, the drivers and the fuel for free for the tours.

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

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