Staff Photo by Allison Carter/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Maryo Beck, principal of Orchard Knob Middle School, talks about the ways in which a large space once heavily used for technology education can be repurposed for other uses.
Orchard Knob Middle School received a host of improvements, from renovated bathrooms to better classroom lighting and new lockers, after the NAACP filed a federal complaint last year alleging discrimination by the Hamilton County Department of Education.
The school got $756,426 worth of upgrades in the past two years, with most of the work done during the summer and fall break this year, said Gary Waters, assistant superintendent of auxiliary services for Hamilton County Schools.
Of those, only new air-conditioning in the gym and some other gym improvements were done before the NAACP's complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights in May 2010, he said.
However, Waters said all schools are treated equitably and that the work at Orchard Knob was planned before the NAACP complaint was filed.
But George Ricks, a Hamilton County school board member whose District 4 includes Orchard Knob Middle, maintains that the NAACP complaint and complaints from parents have helped get things done at the school.
"The NAACP complaining, the parents complaining, has opened our eyes," Ricks said last week during a tour of Orchard Knob Middle. "We walked this building, looked at some things that needed to be done ... and so we went to work on it."
Valoria Armstrong, president of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said civil rights investigators called her in January. They planned to be in Chattanooga this month to visit various schools as a result of the group's complaint, Armstrong said.
The Office of Civil Rights would not confirm or deny that a visit is planned, but a spokesman acknowledged that the office received the NAACP's complaint and that the concerns raised are being investigated.
U.S. Department of Education spokesman Jim Bradshaw wrote an e-mail this month to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He said the Office of Civil Rights is looking into whether the district subjected black students to different treatment by spending more money to improve a track at East Hamilton High School, a majority-white school, while neglecting repairs and improvements at Howard School of Academics and Technology, Orchard Knob Middle and Brainerd High, predominantly black schools.
Not the first complaint
The NAACP's May 10 complaint said, in part: "Whereas, the School Board has allowed superior facilities and offerings for many white neighborhood areas;
"Whereas, great expenditures have and continue to be made in suburban white areas;
"Whereas, Orchard Knob Middle has and continues to be neglected for improvement. ...
"Now, therefore, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Branch of the NAACP calls for a full and immediate investigation of this system."
Joe Rowe, NAACP first vice president, said Orchard Knob "has a history of dilapidated facilities and inadequate school books."
Asked if inner-city schools are treated differently from suburban schools when it comes to funding repairs, Waters responded, "absolutely not."
"On the maintenance side, we take it school by school and try to make it as equal as we can," he said. "Obviously, every year it won't work out exactly to the penny because of various needs. But it's equalized based on the size of the building and then on capital improvements. Money is spent on a needs-based approach."
Ricks agreed that spending on the schools is equal.
"We spend just as much money in the inner-city schools as we do at other schools," Ricks said, adding, "The older schools have a lot of problems."
This is the NAACP's second complaint in recent years. A complaint filed in October 2002 resulted in an eight-month investigation. The Office of Civil Rights tried to determine whether predominantly black schools were shorted on resources and teachers, and whether zoning excluded blacks near East Ridge Elementary from attending that school.
The NAACP dropped the complaint in July 2003 after Howard School of Academics and Technology was renovated and given new computers and students at Brainerd High School's success academy improved their reading scores.
The Office of Civil Rights subsequently dropped its inquiry without a finding.
Laying the groundwork
The recent attention on Orchard Knob Middle has motivated action, but wheels were turning at least three years ago, Ricks said.
The late Debra Matthews, former District 4 school board representative, spoke at school board meetings about needed improvements at Orchard Knob, Ricks said. Matthews died in August 2008.
When Maryo Beck took over as principal that year, he invited community members, including Ricks, to walk through the school and give suggestions to make it better.
Students also made complaints, Beck said.
Keys broke off in some lockers; other lockers wouldn't open even after the lock turned; and boys complained about having no doors on stalls in the bathrooms. The lockers and bathrooms were fixed this school year.
"We just kept bringing attention to it," Beck said.
Recent work at Orchard Knob Middle includes the installation of handicapped-accessible bathrooms, new waterlines and lockers and brighter, more energy-efficient lights in classrooms, Beck said.
The gym got new lights last summer and its windows were covered for better insulation this school year, he said.
School officials also expect locker rooms with working showers during the spring. If so, it will be the first time the school has had operable showers in at least the three years that Beck has been principal.
"We're going to make sure our kids get what they need," Ricks said. "Information is not falling on deaf ears."
More work needed
The school still needs improvements, including auditorium curtains, gym bleachers and new classrooms created from the school's obsolete machine shop, Beck said. But even more urgent are the students' technology needs, he said.
"The biggest thing I'm looking for now that can help us academically, I want wireless throughout the building so you don't have to move from one classroom to the next for all kids to have access to a computer," he said. "With wireless throughout the building, we can set laptops up at students' desk."
He said telecommunication experts said the cost would be in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Beck and Ricks said they both welcome any recommendations that the Office of Civil Rights investigators may give for improvement.
"It's good for people to come in and check. They might see something we don't see," Ricks said.
Said Beck, "What we need to do is and what we have not done is to invite the NAACP and other groups in to see what has been done and to help us think about some things we need to do."
Contact Yolanda Putman at email@example.com or 423-757-6431.
The NAACP's May 10, 2010, letter to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights alleged:
* Racial bias in some school zoning, including Normal Park Museum Magnet School.
* That vocational offerings were transferred from Hamilton County's inner-city, mostly black schools, where most students would enter some trade after high school.
* That a $100,000 bond was issued in 1990 to make improvements at Brainerd High by 1995, but they were not fully carried out and that the mostly black school is not free of asbestos as stipulated.
Yolanda Putman has been a reporter at the Times Free Press for 11 years. She covers housing and previously covered education and crime. Yolanda is a Chattanooga native who has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Alabama State University. She previously worked at the Lima (Ohio) News. She enjoys running, reading and writing and is the mother of one son, Tyreese. She has also ...