published Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Principal pitches Normal Park story to D.C. politicians


by Chris Carroll
  • photo
    Principal Jill Levine takes notes as she observes a teacher in class in this file photo from Normal Park Lower School.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
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WASHINGTON — By now, everyone who's anyone in Hamilton County knows the school system's biggest 21st-century resurrection.

And on Tuesday, Normal Park Museum Magnet School Principal Jill Levine took her story to Uncle Sam, challenging lawmakers to allow failing schools to transform into magnets and promoting her North Chattanooga school as a model for success.

Eight months after being named national principal of the year by Magnet Schools of America, Levine traveled to the group's Capitol Hill policy summit Friday, telling a Scenic City turnaround tale to a nattily dressed mix of congressional staffers, lobbyists, teachers and principals.

Under current federally funded school turnaround models, low-performing schools can become charter schools, but not magnet schools, conference officials said. Levine and other speakers urged lawmakers to change the law to allow for a choice between the two.

Conference officials repeatedly urged attendees to make "the big ask" of lawmakers -- steer more cash to magnet school initiatives.

But when Levine took the microphone for the day's final speech, she seemed to go off message, hinting that there's no magic money bullet.

In a digital presentation heavy on visuals, she dialed back to 2001 and showed photographs of Normal Park in its dingiest state, focusing on grimy desks, crumbling classrooms and graffiti everywhere.

"I'd say Normal Park," she said, "and people would run away."

But 12 years after partnering with seven local museums and opening as a magnet school, Normal Park has reversed lagging student achievement and declining enrollment. Out of 78 Hamilton County schools, it was the only one to receive all A's on the 2011 Tennessee Report Card.

The school has expanded beyond the elementary grades, taking over the former Chattanooga Middle building. And it's one of the most popular schools of choice in the county; hundreds of families who want in can't find a seat.

Three times Tuesday, Levine mentioned students happily "getting their hands dirty," and the manifestations flashed on the screen: Mouthwash-making with Chattem executives, storytelling with World War II veterans and a visit from Mayor Ron Littlefield for a lesson in governing.

While Levine acknowledged an initial reliance on federal grants, she said the Normal Park community ultimately depended on a mix of business donations, quality teachers and a heavy dose of parental involvement.

"Magnet parents are required to give 18 hours a year of volunteer time," Levine said to audible surprise and approval from the crowd. "That has been a game changer for us."

Part of Levine's visit involved treks across the Capitol to the offices of Sen. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Bob Corker, both Republicans who often blanch at the federal government's influence on how education dollars are spent.

"If the federal government had dictated what we wanted Normal Park to be," Corker chief of staff Todd Womack said in an interview, "Normal Park would not have the successes it has today."

In her speech, Levine said Normal Park needed the initial federal grants.

"That's what gave us the funding and the backing to get going through the early days," she said.

In a statement, Alexander, a former U.S. education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, praised magnet schools and advocated a hands-off approach. Neither senator said whether he would advocate for more federal dollars for magnets.

While it's hailed across the country as a model of success, Normal Park is still prone to local criticism. Its zone hotly is contested. New developments are still being squeezed in and some neighborhoods close to the school are left out because of space issues. And its ability to raise large amounts of private and grant dollars gives the school what some feel is an unfair leg-up on other public schools.

Hamilton County school board member Rhonda Thurman thinks magnet schools, though now using an open lottery selection process, are hand-picking some students, which stacks the deck for student success.

And using magnet schools as a school turnaround effort is a tired idea, Thurman said. It's been tried here and some persistently troubled schools like Brainerd High and the Howard School have shed their magnet status.

"It's not like we haven't tried that," she said. "I think we've been there and done that for Hamilton County. I don't see that that's any big revelation."

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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