Ma'Liyah Montgomery, left, holds a candle Wednesday at East Lake Recreation Center while people gathered to memorialize Zoie Nash, a victim of the Woodmore bus crash last week.

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In the wake of the fatal bus crash, Chattanooga stands strong

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School bus crash victims

With last week's Woodmore Elementary School bus crash tragedy still clear in our rear-view mirror, this week's news began with talk of community support and healing.

There were prayers, food, lines to give blood and a community fund drive that quickly topped $18,000.

That's all laudable, but it's not good enough.

It's not good enough because the larger tragedy in this horrific crash is systemic neglect.

Woodmore Elementary is a school of almost 400 students in a Brainerd area that is one of the poorest pockets of the city. Nearly all the students are minority and come from families of generational poverty.

But it's just one of five priority schools in Hamilton County where the percent of students scoring at or above proficiency is unconscionably low and the school's overall academic achievement is among the bottom 5 percent of schools across the state. Although Woodmore improved last year, the situation remains so dire that state officials are threatening to take over the priority schools and place them in a state-run Achievement School District. Like Woodmore, each of the other priority schools also has a high percentage of poor and minority students.

Through a federal grant, Hamilton County's priority schools received more than $13 million in increased funding over the past three school years. However, Hamilton County school administrators did not use more than $1 million of the funding designated for those years. The money is being spent now in hurry-up fashion. State school officials reported that local school leaders lacked a plan for our priority schools, and a Times Free Press analysis found that poor and minority students are much more likely to be taught by the county's least-effective teachers, and that alone speaks volumes in a county where about a third of our teachers are rated least effective by state standards. For context, the state's average of least-effective teachers is 11.4 percent.

Now imagine, if you will, just how many complaints from students, parents and faculty it would have taken to get results when a 24-year-old bus driver was speeding and driving in a way that knocked students around on a bus at say, Big Ridge Elementary in Hixson or Nolan Elementary on Signal Mountain.

Documents obtained by the Times Free Press show complaints about what the school principal would eventually call an "immature" bus driver began as early as September and continued through mid-November. On Nov. 21, five children died and by Thanksgiving, the fatality toll had reached six. Several more children remain hospitalized — some in critical condition.

We absolutely must have community support and healing for these children and families.

But we also must have community support and healing for Woodmore and communities like it — not just after a horrific bus crash, but every day. Every day.

With stronger community support, a 24-year-old graduate of Brainerd High School might have been able to make more than $13 an hour driving a school bus for about five hours a day while working a second night-shift job at Amazon.

With stronger community support, Hamilton County school officials might find it too pressuring to contract with a national busing company that has a known spotty record.

With stronger community support, we might not have a need for healing or for the Woodmore Fund or for stories noting that Tennessee's 2011 tweaks to our state's tort reform law limits payouts in personal injury lawsuits against doctors and other businesses to $750,000.

With stronger community support, Woodmore parents would have their healthy children, not a need for financial planners.

It's both wonderful and horrifying that Chattanooga has gotten really good at after-disaster community support.

What we still don't seem to get is that we don't have to wait for tragedy. And we certainly don't have to set ourselves up for the overarching, everyday, mundane tragedies we stare at week after week, month after month and year after year — the sheer number of young people who wander through our stumbling school system without receiving an education that can land them or their bus driver with a job that pays a living wage.

Hamilton County's bullet list of local educational failures is tiresome to constantly repeat, but it mustn't be swept under the rug as we pat ourselves on the back for candlelight vigils and trays of food:

' A full 60 percent of our third-graders cannot read at their grade level.

' Systemwide, our students tested below the state average in nine of the 10 tested TCAP categories by as many as 16.7 percentage points.

' About 60 percent of our high school graduates are not jobs-ready for Chattanooga area employers.

Tragedy doesn't just strike here every so often. When a community is failing its students on the level that we are failing ours, tragedy strikes here every day.

And, yes, we can change this. We just have to do it.

Woodmore Elementary school bus crash