Stop bashing the iZone schools

UPDATE JULY 25, 2017:  The bashing continues.  From a local newspaper editorial:  “Every student here (has) been slighted over and over for more than a decade while the local educational input- both with planning and dollars- wasn’t good enough to bring these students an adequate environment in which to learn.

Really?  Has that writer visited these schools in the past ten years?  Has that writer seen the additional manpower, technology, programs, and building improvements?  What is it about say, Orchard Knob Elementary that is not an “adequate environment?”  This is another example of uninformed, easy bashing, that ignores the deeper issues outside the school building.

My original story has received tremendous response, generally favorable, but with a few folks asking for specific ideas to “fix families,” as I wrote near the end.  Admittedly, I don’t have the answers.  I wish I did.  However, anyone who has suggestions, or ideas is welcome to leave your comments below.  (DC)


Now that the seemingly endless superintendent search has ended in Hamilton County, school officials are faced with another task. The five “Innovation Zone” (iZone) schools are subject to state takeover, in some form or another, because they consistently rank in the bottom five percent of Tennessee schools in student achievement scores.  Various options are on the table to determine who will oversee those schools, and how they will be funded.

They are Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Middle and Elementary, and Woodmore Elementary.   You’ve probably read or heard all the insults. “These are bad schools.” “We have to provide better teachers.” “These schools have failed our students for many years.”

Sorry, I disagree. When I visit those schools, that is not what I see.   If anything, the communities, or more specifically the neighborhoods have failed these schools. It’s time to place the blame, and put the improvement effort where it belongs: in the home.

It’s not that some folks aren’t trying.   They are. Principals and teachers will tell you. It’s easy to say that parents don’t care.   And it’s certainly true that many of these students don’t have a two-parent home. Sadly, some don’t have a one-parent home, and a few are even homeless.

But in many cases, parents are not unwilling to participate in their child’s education, they’re simply unable.   Many who throw stones have never walked in the shoes of those who work two jobs just to put food on the table.   It isn’t easy to show up for PTO meetings when your employer expects you to be on the job. Nor is it easy to spend time going over math problems and creating science projects when you’re worn out from back-to-back shifts. Now, how is that the fault of Dalewood Middle School, for example?

As the students enter high school, it’s not unusual for them to be the breadwinner of the family, working long, late hours of their own.  If they are fortunate enough to be involved in extracurricular activities like clubs, sports, or band, it’s often up to teachers and coaches to provide transportation. Out of their own pocket, of course.  I often wonder if “the state” is aware of this.

Let’s do the math. If a student has perfect attendance, he or she is in school about 1,260 hours per year. However, there are 8,760 hours in a year, so educators are able to supervise that student 14 percent of the time. Until someone figures out a way to help that child the other 86 percent, we will have problems.

It’s not like the state, county, and federal government have been ignoring these schools. In recent years, educational leaders have been pleading for help, and they have been getting it.

A little history: these are all former Chattanooga city schools. During the latter part of the 1980s and early 1990s, city taxpayers and elected officials seemed to lose interest in them. I visited one of those schools in 1995, before computers became commonplace. The school’s most recent set of encyclopedias were from 1962.  Many of the low-income area school buildings were in terrible shape.   Chattanooga voters decided to cut their losses and get out of the school business in 1996, and by the following year, Hamilton County was forced to absorb the long-neglected city schools.

Dr. Jesse Register, the first superintendent of the newly united school district, knew he needed to beef up those schools. Much to the chagrin of county residents, he moved key resources, including some top teachers and principals, where they were most needed. In the years since, county taxpayers have poured money into new facilities and renovations, in an effort to bring those schools into the 21st century.

So what else could be done to fix these schools? You could provide before and after-school meals, better technology, tutors, academic coaches, graduation coaches, math coaches, literacy coaches, vocational programs, police officers, new administrators, and more qualified teachers. You could recruit volunteers, you could change the start time to later in the morning, you could provide a late pick-up bus for those who missed their regular bus, and you could add counselors, social workers and truancy officers.

Guess what? That’s all been done! It has been happening for some time now, under Hamilton County school district leadership. The test scores still aren’t where they need to be, but anyone who expected an overnight miracle is out of touch with reality.  As I’ve said before, if “the state” has a magic bullet, why have they been holding back?

Here’s the bigger issue. What’s being done to help those children during the 86 percent of the time they are not under a school roof? Where’s the outcry about that? Certainly some churches, philanthropists, recreation centers and volunteers are doing the best they can, but it is not enough. Who is out there who can go door-to-door to fix families? How will they do it, and who will pay for it?

In the meantime, the top scholars and athletes who live in those school zones often find a way out. Private schools that need to boost their diversity often provide assistance and scholarships for the most desirable students. It’s an offer that’s hard to refuse. Nearby charter schools also attract families who are involved with their children, and who are able and willing to pitch in for a better education. As a result, these “failing” iZone schools are left without many students and families who lead by example.

Can a student from Brainerd, Orchard Knob, or Dalewood succeed in spite of all this? Absolutely, positively, yes. I can introduce you to some amazing young people who attend those schools, or have recently graduated. If a student wants to learn, he or she can do it. If a student wants to stay out of trouble, he or she can do it.   The percentage of those students is not as high as the state believes it should be. I cannot argue that. I will argue, however, with those who say the schools themselves are the problem.

The real problem, as School Board chair Steve Highlander said, can be summed up in two words: culture and economics. Until “the state” figures out a way to nurture and protect children before and after the school bell rings, nothing will change. The schools are the safest place most of those children ever see.  They’re staffed by loving adults, well equipped with the best learning tools, and they provide nourishment for the body and the mind. Let’s stop bashing them.  Dig deeper.  Get to the root of the problem.  Figure out how to fix families, and there will be no such thing as a low performing school.

About David Carroll

David Carroll is a longtime Chattanooga radio and TV broadcaster, and has anchored the evening news on WRCB-TV since 1987. He is the author of "Chattanooga Radio & Television" published by Arcadia.

17 thoughts on “Stop bashing the iZone schools

  1. Heather J Wysong

    Amen Mr. Carroll. Well said in my opinion and I have teacher friends who teach in these schools. They care about giving their students whether they are in school or out of school. These staff members at these schools pray everyday for the children they serve.

  2. Susan Simmons

    I have said these same things for a long time. You nailed it and thank you for highlighting the real issues behind failing schools.

  3. Glenda Roy

    Finally someone brave enough and bold enough to speak the truth! There is certainly no quick fix, but the problem can’t be solved until it’s identified. Thank you for realizing and pointing out that it isn’t the teachers and administrators in those schools that are the problem that needs to be solved!

  4. Karen Wilson

    Yes! Thank you David. “If a student wants to learn they can. If a student wants to stay out of trouble he/she can.” I, and every other teacher I know, would rather have a parent who teaches their child a work ethic and respect for others instead of one who shows up at PTO meetings.
    It is families who need help in these schools, not just the students. And it has nothing to do with learning algebra. Or any other test score

  5. Penny Webster

    VERY well said, Mr. Carroll. “The state” is out of touch with reality. It expects teachers and school officials to do what THEY think needs done without coming out of their ivory tower to realistically assess the problem. Thank you!

  6. Arlos Dempsey

    David you are on spot. Too much free time for kids is the same with adults. The first thing is getting the child interested and wanting to learn. To work and provide for a family someday, supervise their children and accept no excuses. In our home, homework was done first, then my Mom would look over it and help with making the correction and explain why it is that way. I was lucky in many ways. I was raised on the back side of Signal Mountain, all working class families. All adults were our parents. You respected your playmates parents. They would correct you usually faster than your own parents. Most neighbors had different professions and we relied on them to help with homework. My Dad died when I was 12, but I worked with him in a sawmill. Learning how to read a measuring tape, Mr Griffith next door was electrician/electronics, Mr. Campbell Chattanooga Police officer. Mr. Slaven mechanic, even had a bootlegger. Every single one would help you or show you how to do something just as quickly as they would bust your butt and take you home and tell your parents if you did something wrong. You could see one doing something and watch and say, I like that, that’s what I want to do and they’d work harder at teaching you a trade than doing their own projects. All except the bootlegger. He’d say get out of here. You don’t need to be around this stuff. Everyone help each other. I could imagine an afternoon class of professionals coming in and sharing their trade to help you develop a skill or an interest in a chosen profession. Much better than them letting their pants drag the ground, shooting each other, or stealing from their neighbors to buy drugs. The big point is “stay the hell away from drugs. The beginning of the end. Sorry this is so long

    1. Megan

      There is noone home after school for many of these students. If they have both parents, both are at work much of the time. The same holds true for their friends parents. It’s easy to say “don’t do drugs” and think it is the big solution. Sure, it’s great. But the families in those communities need adults who *can be available for kids and they need the opportunities to get a better education that leads to a higher paying job so that they don’t have to work two jobs to pay rent, electric, food, etc.

  7. Dawn Jones

    Thank you for your insight! I agree with you in that if “the state” has a magic bullet that can solve the problems facing the schools, they don’t need to keep it a secret. Schools have many qualified and caring educators who give it their all every day, but “it takes a village” to raise a child and some of its residents are missing.

  8. Kathy Eggers

    The problems that you have highlighted were present in the eighties and nineties when I taught in one of these schools mentioned. Too much is expected of teachers and school admin. We aren’t responsible for 24 hour service and protection. The state needs a reality check. Teachers can only do what they have time to accomplish in the hours allotted. In the 80’s and 90’s, some of these schools mentioned were not even safe for teachers and students. Good luck on working for improvement in the real world.

  9. Natalie Kimbell

    Please shout a little louder! Your words are remarkable. You can’t image what a balm your words are to teachers who know the truth about the problems public schools face.

  10. Darious Timms

    All I hear is how our tax dollars could be used. Tell the public the truth though for these schools; especially Brainerd High the problem is the patents and their lack of involvement and the absenteeism rate. A standardized test is intended to cover a certain amount of material that takes x amount of days to present but when the kids are not attending school with a 60% absenteeism there is nothing a teacher or school can do to change that. That is the parents. So stop wasting time and money on a failing social problem not educational problem.

  11. Tina

    David, you have hit the nail on the head so many times! Thank you!

    It has been proven that children learn better when they are rewarded and what better reward than to know their family has taken an interest in their learning.

    One suggestion I have for these schools to bring more family involvement is a Volunteer Coordinator. Our Magnet Schools each have one, and each student has to have an adult log a minimum number of hours each year by April, or they can’t return the next school year. I think at least in these listed schools each family should also have a mandated number of volunteer hours they have to participate per student. Whether it be mom, dad, grandma, or grandpa, there is an adult in that child’s life that can spare a few hours over the course of the school year for the child. If the hours aren’t met by a certain date, a reminder goes out. After the deadline, a bill goes out for an extra fee they can pay in lieu of meeting their hours, a fine if you will. If the fee gets ignored, Children’s Services gets a call. The school was not built to be a free babysitter. This is at the point of neglect and total disrespect. These children deserve better if they are ever going to survive these circumstances.

    The fees that would ever get collected should go directly to the teachers for supply reimbursement. These teachers take the extra time away from their families and schedules to hunt down supply deals, because the huge numbers of these students that don’t come to school properly prepared is unacceptable. Yes they get donations, but usually if they last until Christmas, it’s a miracle.

    I honestly don’t think it’s a bad idea for the whole county to adopt this volunteer policy. I can’t tell you how many parents I talk to that rave about getting their children in a certain school because they moved to “that zone” and I purposely mention the wrong principals name, and those parents have never even darkened the door to even meet the principal!!! They can’t tell you anything else about the school except for what they’ve heard! It’s just sad, especially for the children’s sake, that their parents don’t take a better interest where their child spends the better part of their awake time.

    I personally challenge anyone with a free day a week to step up and volunteer a few hours a week at a local school. If it’s one of these listed schools, that’s a HUGE BONUS.

  12. Sandy Harris

    As a retired teacher, I have an idea. Why not bring back our technical schools? All kids don’t want to be prepared for college. Some are gifted with their hands and learning algebra, geometry, etc. is torture to them. We need all professions, and each is equally important in our society. This won’t solve all the problems, but give kids a reason for wanting to go to school by providing two tracks, college and career.

  13. Jack Sokohl

    Thank you, David, for being the 1st member of the media to tell us what’s already been done on behalf of children in struggling schools. “You could provide before and after-school meals, better technology, tutors, academic coaches, graduation coaches, math coaches, literacy coaches, vocational programs, police officers, new administrators, and more qualified teachers. You could recruit volunteers, you could change the start time to later in the morning, you could provide a late pick-up bus for those who missed their regular bus, and you could add counselors, social workers and truancy officers.”

    Two words: boarding school. Public boarding schools would solve most problems that are created & nurtured by pathological “family units” that are churning out dropouts & criminals & all manner of edu-failures. It can be done; generations long efforts to fix broken, horrid families in time for school-age children to thrive in schools is and has been futile.


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