published Thursday, March 1st, 2012

School zones: Divisive issue

Rick Smith, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, and other education department officials expected a sizable and vocal audience at a Tuesday night meeting to reveal rezoning plans for the fast-growing eastern part of the county. The level of ire expressed by some in the crowd at East Hamilton Middle/High School, though, might have surprised them. It shouldn't have. Whenever the interests of parents concerned about their children's education and related issues conflict with changes in attendance zones, sparks are sure to fly.

That proved the case Tuesday. After Smith and officials revealed rezoning plans designed to relieve overcrowding at East Hamilton and nearby elementary schools, he opened the floor to the comments. More than two hours later, Smith was still fielding questions. His answers didn't always sit well with many in the audience. Voices were raised before the meeting ended, and many attendees were visibly angry as they the left the building.

That anger is misdirected. School officials must relieve overcrowding at East Hamilton. There is no alternative, especially since nearby schools like Ooltewah High and Ooltewah Middle operate below capacity. East Hamilton has a current population of about 2,000 students, well above its planned capacity of 1,650. Redrawing attendance zones is a logical and equitable way to reduce overcrowding that will overwhelm infrastructure and instructional programs at East Hamilton and other sites if not corrected.

Those most directly -- they would say adversely -- affected by the changes in zoning don't see it that way. They view the new plan as a broken promise from the county school system. Many say they bought a home because it was zoned for East Hamilton. Others say the new zones will create transportation difficulties and upset children who will be forced to leave long-standing friends when they change schools. Those are legitimate concerns.

The truth, though, is that school zones are fluid. From time to time, they shift to match population growth and decline. For the eastern part of the county, that time has arrived. The neighborhoods served by East Hamilton, Ooltewah and feeder schools are an example of that. Rapid growth in the area has prompted the need to rebalance school populations.

That change won't come without pain. There's simply not room for everyone to attend the school of his or her choice. In the current case, there are viable alternatives at comparable and nearby schools. The proposed attendance zones would send students to them.

Smith understands the emotions involved in such changes, and certainly would prefer to avoid conflict if he could. His goal, though, is the correct one. County residents rightly require the school system to provide the best education for the most kids in available facilities within the present budget. The zoning plan presented Tuesday is an effort to do so.

The plan should not be cut in stone. Time should be allowed for additional discussion between school officials and parents, and for making changes that address inequities -- some raised Tuesday -- in the plan. Smith and other officials still have to make a convincing case that their plan is the best available to relieve the present overcrowding and to address continued growth that will affect schools in that part of Hamilton County.

The next opportunity for them to do so is tonight at 6 at Ooltewah High School at another public meeting convened to explain school zoning changes. It's an invitation and an opportunity that those with children in the affected schools and others with an interest in public education here should quickly accept.

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srp1976 said...

The parents have every right to be concerned and to voice those concerns when presented with the zoning proposals. Especially when the zoning proposals obviously favor some over others and no credible reason is provided for some of the decisions other than East Hamilton is overcrowded.

It is a fact that requests for data used as a basis for the rezoning were met at first with rejections, excuses, and eventually soft promises of future availability after the Thursday meeting in Ooltewah. Parents were also directed to see their principals to view packets containing the information (but principals were instructed to not allow copies to be made). This secretive manner of operation only heightens the sense of unfairness and collusion.

Today, copies of the proposed zoning maps were made available to the media ahead of the scheduled Ooltewah meeting. Unfortunately, no data used to generate the proposed zone changes has been released. One expects that existing and projected population/student densities (on a street by street basis), RPA assessments of future growth, along with existing and proposed bus routes/times were generated and used during the study. That data should and must be provided for public review if parents are expected to accept the zoning process as open and transparent.

Brief glimpses of the data used were captured during the Tuesday presentation but it did not always appear to support the zoning proposal. For example, the reported RPA assessment that pinpoints Ooltewah as the major future growth area makes transporting students to that location seem contradictory to the stated goal. It instead, makes the effort to seem short sighted to say the least. A full disclosure of the data is the only way to clear up these discrepancies and lead to understanding of the proposal.

If the Ooltewah growth projections are accurate, then in the end a zoning solution that will satisfy the ultimate goal, an elimination of overcrowding, is not possible. And the one solution that will come closest to reaching the goal is not being seriously pursued. The only way to actually solve the overcrowding problem and meet future needs is to build the originally planned separate middle school near East Hamilton. Without that school, all of the rezoning will fail and all of the schools will be overcrowded (probably in very short order). Unfortunately, the middle school building project is fairly low in priority to the school board, based on prioritization described at the presentation and previous articles in the news. But it is (past) time for the school board, the commission, and every other responsible entity to rapidly fund and build that school and quit trying to kick the can down the road.

February 29, 2012 at 10:56 p.m.
srp1976 said...

At the Tuesday meeting a best case time line for completing the middle school was quoted as three years. That should be what everyone focuses on beating. The parents are energized, attentive, and getting the attention of their elected officials. Don’t waste that attention and opportunity on a doomed zoning proposal. Instead, look to a winning proposition. We need to champion and build the middle school.

February 29, 2012 at 10:56 p.m.
LaughingBoy said...

Widen the zones of East Ridge and Tyner High and their feeder schools, on their eastern sides. Without that the population is just being shifted back from East Brainerd to Ooltewah without a long term solution. Ooltewah High will now be overcrowded as it was previously. There is zero need for new schools in the county except if schools are too old. Too many are underused. White flight be darned, it's better than throwing away tens of millions of dollars unnecessarily.

February 29, 2012 at 11:48 p.m.

East Hamilton parents get included in rezoning process. Hill City parents get excluded from rezoning process they've been fighting to get sense 2007.

March 1, 2012 at 12:19 a.m.
LaughingBoy said...

The magnet school process is a separate issue.

March 1, 2012 at 12:29 a.m.

You're right. There's no need for transparency and public input in the magnet school business.

March 1, 2012 at 1:06 a.m.
LaughingBoy said...

How much public input is needed. Nobody wanted to go to that school until it turned magnet including the nearby residents. Then test scores rise, leadership is hired, and here comes everyone out of the woodwork. There's nothing wrong with the school in Red Bank except it's not within walking distance.

March 1, 2012 at 1:20 a.m.

Go ask the Hill City residents.

March 1, 2012 at 2:53 a.m.
aae1049 said...

All Hill City residents were offered slots at Normal Park when Chattanooga Middle was retooled from the lowest performing middle school in Hamilton County. No one was kicked out. I was there the first year, and over half declined placement in the new school structure. Why do people perpetuate such lies about Normal Park, who has accepted all Hill City that actually want placement at the school? The attacks against the principal and staff are unwarranted. Hill City will never be happy, even after full zoning is adopted for the neighborhood.

God Bless the Parents, that purchased homes for East Hamilton zoning. I favor lifting all zoning for schools and just take on a first come, first serve by preference, and 2nd perference. It would be more work for HCDE, but this zoning nonsense causes too many problems.

March 1, 2012 at 7 a.m.
hixsondave said...

If these super parents that saved Normal Park were rezoned to schools in there own neighborhoods, surely they could save more schools nobody wants to attend.

March 1, 2012 at 9:03 a.m.
jhcain said...

I have had it with the negative attitudes that some of the parents have regarding Ooltewah Middle (the school that my child attends) and High school. These schools are as good as East Hamilton. Just because you have a shiny new building does not mean you are any better. And to those who think the value of your house will go down now-GIVE ME A BREAK! All Ooltewah schools are great! My child is not going to look forward to your child coming in to her school which she LOVES if you poison your child with this nonsense. Ooltewah Middle is an excellent school. Where do you think East Hamiltons kids came from 3 years ago? The same teachers in elementary schools taught those kids as the ones that are at the Ooltewahs schools and they test just fine thank you! Our teachers are awesome and our counselor just won a major award. Our coaches are award winning and we have one of the best resource officers around! You are LUCKY to have two great schools that your child(ren) can attend!!!! My property is one both sides of the EHamilton Ooltewah line and my child chose Ooltewah!!! So, just because our building is a little old, do not worry cause the Ooltewah Owls have heart and are a great group of kids!!! The transition can go well only if they go in to it with a good attitude. These children can't if the parents do not stop whinning and go in to this with the right mindset. Look, my child is not excited to have crowded halls and larger classrooms but she is willing to take in her east hamilton neighbors graciously. So parents, follow her lead and lets go in to this with hope and not distract from what is the most important-our children.

March 1, 2012 at 9:11 a.m.
RhiMaynard said...

srp1976 gets it! The school board has never clarified exactly what is their methodology for creating or retooling schools zones. Do they even look at census data or are they listening to voices in the wind? The city council and county commission can map out populations down to a nth degree in order to redistrict voters to within a small threshold but the school board flings wet spaghetti noodles at a map and calls it a plan.

My experience over the last two years working with the school system on the Hill City zoning issue enabled me to predict this East Hamilton storm.

April, Chattanooga Middle was retooled in 2008. As time passes young families have children and young children grow into school aged children. To say that "all Hill City residents were offered slots" is but a snapshot of the community at that point in time. This is 2012, life goes on. I have neighbors up and down the streets with children at various ages. Full zoning for Hill City is a satisfactory goal and is mandated by the school board's November 3, 2011 vote to do exactly that.

Normal Park was always meant to be a community school - that is why it has a zone. My neighbors in North Chattanooga need to wake up to the parasitic home developers that have profited mightily off of your hard work and dedication. The Perry North development - 44 homes in the $300,000 range - is going to cause overcrowding and will further impede on magnet seats & diversity. The lottery this year didn't weight for socioeconomic status or geography and that will further detract from diversity through the magnet system.

Normal Park leadership came out fiercely opposed to adding Hill City to the zone, where is the strong public opposition to the Perry North development?

My brothers and sisters on Tremont, Mississippi, Oliver, Normal Ave, Colville, etc need to wake up and see that Hill City's fight is your fight too.

March 1, 2012 at 9:39 a.m.
aae1049 said...

Rhimanard. 2 generations of my family attended Normal Park elementary, and the former Northside Jr. High. At one point, over the years our zoning was changed to Riverview Elementry which was fine with us, even though we live 1 mile from Normal Park. The reality is each school has a capacity. I note with interest the Hill City group is not complaining about CCA 6-12 program, which is a high school that is also in our backyard that my own cannot attend because he is not inclined to act or paint art. Admission preference is given to the families in the art nonprofit sector.

Our neighborhood group spend years objecting to the failing and dangerous Chattanooga Middle. I lived a mile from the former Chattanooga Middle School for 15 years, and was zoned for the lowest performing and dangerous middle school in Hamilton County according to the state report cards. In my opinion, Chattanooga Middle was a deplorable school with padlocks and fencing at the tops of the each stairwell, a prison atmosphere, with teachers and students that accepted mediocrity as a school culture. My son attended Normal Park with the existing group of students from Chattanooga Middle due to age. I know for a fact that all the existing students were offered continued placement at Normal Park, because my son was in the existing class. I was there, so for you to deem me as not aware is commical. Normal Park has not turned these students away. I know Jill Levine to be an ethical and extraordinarily hard working person. It seems that nothing will satisfy Hill City. They have given preference and are not turning Hill City children away.

So, now you object to new development?

March 1, 2012 at 12:20 p.m.
LaughingBoy said...

Jhcain gets it. Ooltewah might not be the newest, trendy big thing but that doesn't make a difference. As for the person wanting no zones it would be anarchy with all parents in the county trying to get theirs into no more than half a dozen at each level.

March 1, 2012 at 1:30 p.m.
hixsondave said...

"So, now you object to new development? " You missed the point aae people object to Normal Park being able hand select the developments or students they let in.

March 1, 2012 at 3:20 p.m.
LaughingBoy said...

Magnets should have no zone, at all. Students should go to the nearest non-magnet school if they're not going to the magnet, by lottery. Red Bank is a hop and a jump from the location in question. Any zone, sooner or later, will result in the problems being experienced now.

March 1, 2012 at 3:28 p.m.
mysweetkids said...

To the very unsympathetic Ooltewah resident: I ask that you go to tn.gov/education and look at test scores. For 2011 test scores, East Hamilton Middle got ALL As while Ooltewah Middle got three Cs and a B. While mediocrity is fine for some, it is not OK for us all!

March 1, 2012 at 5:04 p.m.
jjmez said...

I thought this was what the parents were whining about. The overcrowding. Now HCDE is doing something about it and they don't like it? Or were they trying to get those out of zone students kicked out? Be careful what you ask for.

March 1, 2012 at 7:44 p.m.
SavartiTN said...

Interestingly enough, Ooltewah High School scored higher (19.9) on the composite ACT than East Hamilton (19.6) for 2011.

March 1, 2012 at 9:57 p.m.
LaughingBoy said...

Sweet what is to stop your kid(s) from getting A's at the school no matter which he or she ends up at?

March 2, 2012 at 12:46 a.m.
notfromhere said...

How could there be more transparency in the magnet process? The lottery was streamed live on the internet.

Also, is it possible to forgo the vilification of parents who just want their kids to get the best education possible? It's demoralizing for any parent to have the rug swept out from under them in a rezoning process.

March 2, 2012 at 9:08 a.m.

Just looking at the current zoning for schools screams the fact that they are drawn using reasons other than proximity to the school. It seems gerrymandering isn't just for stealing elections.

March 2, 2012 at 10:25 a.m.
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