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Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson speaks during the Opportunity Zone Community Celebration Phase II at Howard School on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Parents, school faculty and community members gathered to note the accomplishments of the Opportunity Zone schools.

As Hamilton County school board members asked district administration to cut spending in the proposed budget because of the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic this year, Superintendent Bryan Johnson shifted some of his top staff and reorganized the district's five learning communities.

As part of this reorganization, Johnson dismantled one of his first and most lauded initiatives, the Opportunity Zone.

The zone was launched in 2017, just months after Johnson took the helm of the district, and was made up of 12 of Hamilton County's most-struggling public schools. It included five schools on the state's priority list at the time — schools that had been threatened with state takeover — and neighboring schools in both Brainerd and Howard High schools' feeder patterns that share some of the same struggles.

Some of the schools were once a part of the city school system and house the county's largest concentrations of minority students and students from low-income households.

Now, seven of the Opportunity Zone schools will make up the new MidTown learning community and the remaining schools — Barger Academy, Clifton Hills Elementary, East Lake Elementary, East Lake Academy and the Howard School — will join the existing Missionary Ridge community that extends from East Ridge to Howard.

"The reality is, as we've had to reorganize in several different facets, it has had some implications across the district," Johnson told the Times Free Press. "We looked at it as an opportunity to try and redefine what we wanted to do."

 

Former Opportunity Zone schools

— Barger Academy of Fine Arts

— Brainerd High*

— Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy

— Clifton Hills Elementary

— Dalewood Middle*

— East Lake Elementary

— East Lake Middle Academy

— Hardy Elementary

— The Howard School

— Orchard Knob Elementary*

— Orchard Knob Middle*

— Woodmore Elementary*

* indicates that the school also belongs to the State Partnership Network

 

After the school board asked Johnson's team to cut the estimated growth money from property tax revenue from its proposed fiscal year 2021 budget, Johnson cut two administrative-level positions. Former Harrison Bay Learning Community Executive Director John Tharp moved into a vacant principal role at Red Bank Middle School and Stephanie Hinton, director of the Opportunity Zone, was already set to retire.

Other top Opportunity Zone leaders were reassigned as well. Former Elementary Director Saunya Goss moved into a principal role at East Brainerd Elementary School and Secondary Director Zac Brown is now filling a need in human resources.

The point of the Opportunity Zone was to provide more staff, targeted support and group resources for a group of schools that needed it most. Former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and other Tennessee Department of Education officials credited Johnson at the time the zone launched and said it was a major factor in why the state decided to leave the failing schools that now make up the Partnership Network (and MidTown) under district control.

Johnson said the reorganization is not backtracking, though, and the approach hasn't failed. In fact, he thinks of it as accelerating the work.

"You've got a subset of schools in Hamilton County that for 20 years have not maybe performed at the level we desire, but we've seen positive trends," Johnson said. "I would point to that from a student academic growth standpoint and the trends for the number of schools who have met or exceeded the state exceptions for academic growth versus what has historically happened, it is significant."

Nine of the twelve schools met or exceeded student academic growth metrics set by the Tennessee Department of Education based on 2018-19 test scores, with three of the schools — Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy, Clifton Hills Elementary and East Lake Elementary — named "Level 5" schools, the highest possible growth score.

Still, eight of the schools haven't improved student achievement enough to make it off the state's priority school list. Student academic growth at Brainerd High, the Howard School and Orchard Knob Middle School rank the lowest on the state's scale.

Schools in MidTown Learning Community

— Brainerd High School

— Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy

— Dalewood Middle

— Hardy Elementary

— Orchard Knob Elementary

— Orchard Knob Middle

— Woodmore Elementary

Schools in Missionary Ridge Learning Community

— Barger Academy

— Bess T. Shepherd Elementary

— Clifton Hills Elementary

— East Lake Academy

— East Lake Elementary

— East Ridge Elementary

— East Ridge High

— East Ridge Middle

— East Side Elementary

— Howard Connect Academy

— The Howard School

— Spring Creek Elementary

— Tyner High Academy

— Tyner Middle School

 

Chief of Schools Neelie Parker said the reorganization of the learning communities allows the district to "focus the focus" even more strategically.

"We want to be efficient and effective. When we started, the Opportunity Zone was really our first go at anything learning community related and it really started out of the gate before any other learning community," Parker said. "The whole learning community structure was a key for us to stabilize, to accelerate and to really be very strategic to the specific needs of each feeder pattern."

Some of the focus that the Howard School and its feeder schools need is the same as many Missionary Ridge schools, Parker said. As that area of the county sees a growing Latino population, many of the neighborhood schools have increased need for English language learning supports.

Parker believes that the district will be better able to leverage the Newcomer Center launched last year at the Howard School for students who might be new to education in Hamilton County and are also learning the language, as well as other supports such as extra teachers of English as a second language who aren't needed in other areas of the district.

A secret weapon that the district will also tap into through this reorganization is the leadership and expertise of one of Chattanooga's best-known educators when it comes to school turnaround work — Elaine Swafford.

Though Swafford is now leading the all-girls public charter school, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, and launching a new Montessori elementary school, she is also serving as interim executive director for the MidTown schools.

"Part of the plan is to bring on Elaine Swafford to help leverage some of her expertise," Parker said.

Johnson didn't deny that he'd like to recruit Swafford, a longtime educator who is retired from the school district, back to the system, but Swafford said she has a full-time job.

"I hope to lend some capacity about what I have learned in turnaround," Swafford told the Times Free Press. "I'm just a bridge until [a new executive director] steps in so [the schools] can have some leadership during this time of transition. I'm going to stand up beside them and try to lend some best practices and encouragement and see if we can't build some capacity together to start this turnaround in MidTown."

Johnson said that taking advantage of Swafford's expertise through consulting work is a business-type approach.

"One of the issues sometimes in education is we don't always approach it from the way business and industry approach something they go out and find the folks that have had success to learn from and lead it," Johnson said.

Though many people in the community were surprised or confused when they heard Swafford would be helping lead the new MidTown learning community, she emphasizes that it is temporary.

"It's exciting to be able to help the children of Hamilton County, and I'm excited to help in any way that I can," she said. "I can only do what I know. I don't have a magic bullet to take to MidTown."

"I do know that we need to build a culture that is sound, have a growth mindset, follow good best practices and let the data drive our instructional and some of our operational decisions," Swafford added. "We have to have a sustainable plan, and we have to make sure the culture in every building is that we are building this together. We have to have a professional learning community that we build together and make sure that every one of them has the culture and the mindset that we can do this — that this work can be done, it can be accomplished."

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

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