Sohn: Priority schools list shows us 'equity' blueprint

Sohn: Priority schools list shows us 'equity' blueprint

September 25th, 2018 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Percent in poverty

Priority Schools

› Brainerd High — 77

› Calvin Donaldson — 88

› Clifton Hills Elementary — 81

› Dalewood Middle School — 78

› Hardy Elementary School — 87

› Orchard Knob Elementary — 86

› Orchard Knob Middle — 84

› The Howard School — 60

› Woodmore Elementary — 70

Reward Schools

› Allen Elementary School — 24

› Apison Elementary — 17

› Bess T. Shepherd Elementary — 62

› Chattanooga High Center for Creative Arts — 14

› Chattanooga School for Arts and Sciences Upper — 11

› Chattanooga School for Arts and Sciences Lower — 12

› Hamilton County Collegiate High School — 3.3

› Hixson Elementary School — 49

› Loftis Middle School — 17

› Lookout Mountain — .6

› McConnell Elementary — 24

› Nolan Elementary — 6

› Normal Park Museum Magnet — 11

› Signal Mountain Middle/High — 5

› Soddy Elementary School — 33

› STEM School Chattanooga — 13

› Westview Elementary — 11

Source: Tennessee 2016-2017 Report Card

Nine Hamilton County schools are now officially ranked among the state's worst performing schools.

And 16 schools — 17 if you count the upper and lower divisions of Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences as separate schools — are ranked among the state's top performers.

This means more than 11.5 percent of our 78 schools are failing, and just 20 percent are top performers. The rest are somewhere in the all-too-normal middle.

The nine poor performers are all — repeat, all — schools with very high percentages of black and Hispanic students who live in poverty. Dubbed "priority" schools, they are Brainerd High School, Howard School, Dalewood and Orchard Knob middle schools, Calvin Donaldson, Clifton Hills, Hardy, Orchard Knob and Woodmore elementary schools.

The top performers are mostly all-white or decidedly diverse schools. But most importantly, most are schools with a lower percentage of students in poverty. They are schools such as Apison, Lookout Mountain, Nolan and Soddy elementaries, Loftis and Signal Mountain middle schools and several Chattanooga magnet schools.

It's hard not to look at the two extremes reflected on these lists and not see a screaming need to examine the issue of equity in our schools — the issue of equity in our two Chattanoogas: The affluent and climbing Chattanooga and the poor and left-behind Chattanooga.

Some of our school and community leaders understand this problem. In fact, they even made an effort in the spring to address it, planning to hire a consultant to help chart ways to reverse the inequities in our public schools.

This was on top of the enthusiastic plans and work already underway by our new superintendent, Dr. Bryan Johnson, to develop a "Partnership Network" with the state for the five schools (among our priority schools) that the state threatened to take over. Dr. Johnson also introduced another initiative to create work-ready programs, partnering with industry. That work-ready effort puts "Future Ready Institutes" — today's answer to vocational and technical schools — in our high schools.

But then came a firestorm over the equity plan — no doubt, in part, as to how the message was delivered.

The local NAACP chapter presented proposals for change, based on its contention 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 called for the board to devote about $500,000 to exploring school choice, or open enrollment across the district, as well as culturally responsive professional development in specific schools.

Two school board members balked, seeming to read "forced busing" into that and other local proposals intended to ease the impact of high poverty in some of our schools. By the way, forced busing was never part of the fix, but the board members' knee-jerk reactions prevailed.

All talk about examining equity in schools just stopped in June. Privately, some in the community acknowledge that it was put on hold until new board members took office after the August county elections.

Now those new board members are in place, and it's time for our community to look this issue in the eye and demand improvement.

Equity in schools is different from equality in schools. And in Hamilton County, equity has had too little attention for far too long.

What a specific, documented plan can offer is an equity-focused lens for bridging the divides of educational needs among our diverse 45,000 students and their 3,000 teachers. We need this. We've always needed it, and now it is shameful that once again it is "on hold."

What? We can't even talk about equity in our schools? We can't even talk about Orchard Knob Elementary School youngsters (86 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic and 86 percent economically disadvantaged) starting school with tiny vocabularies because their parents can't afford books or don't read to them as toddlers?

Let's insist the equity task force be brought back to life. Soon.

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