A new plan for school equity
Equity in schools is different from equality in schools.
And in Hamilton County, equity has had too little attention for a long, long time.
That seems to be changing — thanks to employers who can't find qualified workers and to our Chamber of Commerce that wants to make employers happy. It also is changing thanks to spotlights from Chattanooga 2.0, UnifiEd, and the Tennessee Department of Education with its insistence that our county finally develop a plan to better serve the system's most challenged schools.
It's changing thanks to County Mayor Jim Coppinger's "work group" to find an effective way to meet school needs.
It's also beginning to change thanks to a new superintendent, Dr. Bryan Johnson, whose youthful and enthusiastic embrace of a tough challenge has been to develop a "Partnership Network" with the state for the schools the state threatened to take over and another initiative to create work-ready programs with industry. That work-ready effort puts "Future Ready Institutes" — today's answer to vocational and technical schools — in our high schools.
This is not to say our work with equity is done, and on Thursday the NAACP offered a gentle reminder of that to the Hamilton County Board of Education.
Jim Johnson, attorney for the local NAACP chapter, presented proposals for change, based on NAACP contentions that 12 local schools — Brainerd High School, The Howard School and both high schools' feeder schools — are and have been historically and continually segregated schools.
According to the group's fact sheet, and backed up by data from the 2017 State Report Card, 90 percent of students at those 12 schools are black or Hispanic and most of them come from communities of concentrated poverty.
The NAACP proposals call for the board to devote about $500,000 in exploring school choice, or open enrollment across the district, as well as culturally responsive professional development in specific schools.
Some of this work already is underway — thanks to the groups and initiatives outlined by community efforts or the new superintendent.
But the NAACP is wise to fear those efforts might not be fully lasting or successful without a continued focus that is informed by what the group is calling a "Professional Development Plan in Cultural Competence."
Now, that may sound like a lot of 50-cent words for sensitivity training and lessons in race relations, empathy and getting along.
But what a specific, documented plan can really offer is an equity-focused lens for bridging the divides of educational needs among our diverse 45,000 students and their 3,000 teachers.
Call it what you will, but we need this. We've always needed it, and never acknowledged it.
The NAACP's proposal suggests 50 expert consultant sessions for teacher and administrator professional development, school site visits, instructional books and parent workshops.
After hearing the NAACP's pitch Thursday, the board approved a task force — one already in the works — to address inequities in schools. Marsha Drake, promoted to the school district's chief equity officer role last fall after Johnson became superintendent, said the task force represents an acknowledgement that there are inequities and makes the school system "more transparent to address those."
The NAACP will be a part of that task force.
We applaud this work and this focus. Like many previous efforts aimed at equality and equity, it might not work for us, either. But at this point, what have we got to lose?
Sentiment vs. safety
Just as students across the nation take to the streets to protest gun violence and honor those killed in school shootings, the Tennessee legislature is rolling out another version of "thoughts and prayers" rather than any rational way to limit weapons of war and to keep children — anyone — safer.
In Tennessee, the only protection our kids can count on from lawmakers right now is a motto: "In God We Trust."
Our lawmakers this week passed a bill requiring public schools to prominently display those words in every school, either as a plaque, artwork or in some other form.
Meanwhile, Tennessee legislators continue to make it legal to buy any and all guns with little limit, and they continue to pass bills making it easier to carry guns anywhere and everywhere.
The motto bill would take effect immediately if Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signs it. The bill passed the Senate unanimously and cleared the House in an 81-8 vote.
This motto, by the way, would seem to represent an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion, and it already has invited legal challenges in other states with similar laws.
The cost of guns
Meanwhile, school board members heard a school safety presentation from Sheriff Jim Hammond on Thursday, just as a bill to arm some Tennessee teachers passed yet another key legislative hurdle this week.
Hammond already had said that arming teachers would not be his "first, second or even third" choice. But he acknowledges that it is the "least expensive option."
In order to add school resource officers to all 79 schools in the district — only 29 schools now have assigned SROs — it would cost $4 million.
What's more, it wouldn't be a quick fix.
"Even if I had that money tonight, it would be January before I could bring us up to speed," Hammond said.
Let's be clear. We already have plenty of evidence — even regional and local evidence — that arming teachers is the wrong answer.
What a ridiculous state we've reached.
Thoughts and prayers, indeed.