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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, left, looks on as Superintendent Bryan Johnson speaks during a Partnership Network Advisory board meeting at the Hamilton County Department of Education board room on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
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State expecting school improvement

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The state expects to see accelerated improvement in student achievement and growth in Hamilton County's lowest-preforming schools in the next year, as state and local officials look to a more data-driven approach for turning around these historically low-performing schools.

The advisory board for the Partnership Network, the collaborative effort between with the Tennessee Department of Education and Hamilton County Schools to oversee five historically-failing schools, met with Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn to review 2019 student data and next steps for the partnership Tuesday night.

The network was established under the administration of the previous education commissioner, Candice McQueen, while former Gov. Bill Haslam was in office.

When asked by media if Schwinn's administration has a different approach than McQueen's for the partnership, she said the state was still evaluating what would work best.

"The state is continuing to explore what our best efforts look like and what works best for this community," Schwinn said. "The state is committed to this partnership and our overall goal is the same goal we have for every child in the state, that every child has access to a high-quality education that will set them up for success."

Members of the advisory board, who were appointed by the state education department and the school district, include local business leaders and influential community members. They brainstormed about some of the data they want to be provided on a monthly basis so they can track efforts underway in the five partnership schools, which include Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary.

The schools are already held accountable for certain metrics and "annual measurable objectives," like any other school or priority school across the state.

Most of the schools, even ones that saw increases in student academic growth during the 2018-19 school year, did not hit their goals. Brainerd High School in particular saw increased schools on TNReady tests, reduced numbers of students who are chronically absent and an increased graduation rate, but still isn't on track to come off the state's priority school list.

The priority school list includes the bottom 5% of schools in the state and is redrafted every three years. Most priority schools are schools in some of the state's larger urban areas in Davidson, Hamilton and Shelby counties.

"We know that Brainerd improved in four or five accountability areas, but we also know that Brainerd isn't improving fast enough to exit priority school status," said Rebecca Millot, data analyst for Hamilton County's Opportunity Zone learning community, which also includes the five partnership schools.

But Millot and other district officials were encouraged by reduced rates in chronic absenteeism and steady progress in some areas, such as literacy, thanks to new curriculum that is being piloted in several elementary schools.

One of the biggest challenges for these historically failing schools is that the system "hasn't traditionally outperformed the state," said Superintendent Bryan Johnson. The creation of the partnership network was to address and support these schools that have historically struggled to succeed he said.

This year, Schwinn's administration is introducing a requirement for priority schools called a "milestone visit," which will include members of the state education department, Hamilton County Schools and the advisory board. The team will visit each priority school over the course of two days in October; hold focus groups with students, teachers and parents; and explore the "health" of the school," which includes not just academic progress, but the atmosphere and climate, how students feel about their school, parental engagement and more.

These milestone visits will be held twice a year and a report will be compiled afterwards and presented to the advisory board. With the report and monthly and quarterly tracking of data such as benchmark scores, attendance and how many students are failing English or math classes, advisory board members said they would be able to better track progress in the schools.

Schwinn said now that the partnership network is entering its second year of existence and has established procedures and metrics the team wants to track, schools should see increases in student performance in the next couple of years.

Schwinn also noted that her administration will be rethinking school turnaround strategies across the state, including in the state's Achievement School District and other priority schools across the state to find best practices and models for success in the coming year.

The State Partnership Network advisory board's next public meeting is on Dec. 3.

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

PARTNERSHIP NETWORK ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

— Valoria Armstrong, vice president of American Water’s national government affairs and community development efforts

— 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

— 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

— Dominique Brandty, development director for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Chattanooga

Note: Former advisory board chair Gerald Webb resigned from the board due to his appointment as a Hamilton County General Sessions Judge earlier this year. Brandt was named as his replacement.

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