Just moments before Candace McQueen presented a new proposal that would allow the state to help fix five poorly-performing schools in Hamilton County’s poverty areas, Jill Levine could not contain her smile nor hide her emotions any longer. “It’s good … It’s really good…” she stage-whispered as McQueen, the state’s Commissioner of Education, faced the school board late Thursday afternoon.
The one person in the whole room I wanted to see happy with the state’s proposal was the dynamic Levine because, since the opening of school, she has totally poured herself into about a dozen schools that need intensive care. She above all others knows there is a way to reach, educate, and nurture today’s children who – through no fault of their own – are getting left behind. If a child in a poverty situation cannot measure up on the first day of kindergarten, when will that precious human being ever catch up?
For a year and a half the state’s McQueen has threatened to pirate Chattanooga’s five troubled iZone schools into something called the Achievement School District that failed miserably in Memphis over the past five years. Today there are seven Memphis charter school that are being threatened to close, millions of dollars have been wasted and lost, and there is very little improvement to be found.
So when McQueen first started in Chattanooga, she proposed a foolish second school board, removing the five schools and all the children from any control by a Hamilton County educator, and embarking on a hare-brained scheme that would add insult to the misery in a school district where a full 60 percent of its third graders are unable to read at grade level.
In the past two years it has been discovered that wanton neglect by the elected school board and the elected County Commission have created horrific problems for public education. School buildings have been blatantly ignored, county officials have placed themselves over what is best for children, and leadership within the system has been allowed to decay miserably.
The roller-coaster ride is far from over but a “Godsend” in the millage rate, coupled with a zealous drive to hire a formidable superintendent in Bryan Johnson, and a renewed push by the community towards public education, has been notably impressive. McQueen said as much last night and offered a plan - believe it or not - had a sincerity and earnestness that shows “the state” is back to being “us.”
Gone is the scheme to rewrite school board laws. Total governance in the new partnership pattern will come totally from people elected by the people. There will be a seven-person advisory board – with four Hamilton County residents selected as state representatives and three more from within Hamilton County picked by the school board representatives.
The state will hire a “facilitator” of sorts to help “guide” the five iZone schools – Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle, Woodmore, Dalewood and Brainerd – but, whoa! When Johnson charged Levin with the “Innovation Zone,” he included others, like Hardy, Barger, The Howard School, East Lake Elementary and Middle. Calvin Donaldson and Clifton Hills were added because many kindred problems are common in the inner city schools.
Don’t you see? Johnson and Levine want to work their magic on more than five and McQueen has promised Levine the state will be happy to help with any other schools she names. “It isn’t a take-over,” Jill said. “This is a partnership and we have a far bigger stake in it than the state.
“The commissioner and her team have been down here for most of the day,” Jill said last night. “We’ve kicked around more ideas, talked about what our weaknesses are …. Believe me, this is far, far, far different than what was scaring you. This is totally based on children. I know you believe the teachers of Hamilton County can do anything … and we can. But sometimes when you say ‘I need a hand’ it strengthens your resolve to accept one.”
Candace McQueen is perhaps in her last year. A new governor brings in a new team and, when the “partnership” is implemented in August of this year, Commissioner McQueen will have less than three months in office unless she can impress the next head of our state. Yeah, she and the school board will sign a five-year deal but – brother – a new administration can run that asunder in no time at all.
Yet that’s not the focus. The True North is the child. Jill Levine tells me this partnership will work, and now it is a partnership. And best of all? “We have a chance.”