published Friday, May 11th, 2012

Hamilton County misses out on a multimillion-dollar schools grant

Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at a press conference following the adjournment of the 107th General Assembly in Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday, May 1, 2012.
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at a press conference following the adjournment of the 107th General Assembly in Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday, May 1, 2012.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE -- Hamilton County school officials' attempt to win a multimillion-dollar grant for helping as many as seven failing schools didn't make the grade on Thursday.

But Gov. Bill Haslam said the system still will get $600,000 to do better planning and try again this fall to get funding for an "innovation zone" to support the schools.

"Hamilton County is getting planning money, and when their innovation zone gets in place, then they'll be eligible for more funding," he said.

The Nashville and Memphis school systems received about $27 million. Haslam said the other two systems "were just further ahead in the process."

Superintendent Rick Smith said the innovation zone is a new concept for Hamilton County Schools. Nashville Superintendent Jesse Register unveiled the innovation zone concept in July.

"The I-zone is new for us," Smith said. "It's not new for Nashville."

State officials initially announced a pot of about $35 million, meaning at least $8 million still is available.

"This could be a multimillion-dollar grant for us," Smith said.

To win the $600,000 grant, and any subsequent funding, Smith said the system had to transfer three principals -- Brainerd High Principal Charles Joynes, Dalewood Middle Principal Rodney Johnson and Woodmore Elementary Principal Visa Harper. Principals at Orchard Knob Elementary and Orchard Knob Middle, the other two schools that would make up the Innovation Zone, didn't have to be moved because they hadn't yet worked at the schools for three years.

Those principals have not yet been reassigned.

The innovation zone program is intended as a last-ditch effort to avoid letting failing local schools be taken over by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

Haslam announced three-year grants totaling $14.74 million for seven ailing Memphis city schools and $12.38 million for another seven troubled Metro Nashville schools. Another $10.39 million is for the Achievement School District, which is taking over six problem schools in Memphis and Nashville.

The systems are getting the money under a Haslam legislative initiative, which he signed into law Thursday. It redefines school accountability standards, makes other significant changes and fulfills requirements the state agreed to in obtaining an Obama administration waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law.

"This is a big day in Tennessee," Haslam said during the signing ceremony at Brick Church Middle School in Nashville. He called it "one of the landmark steps along the way" toward improving Tennessee schools, an effort initiated by former Gov. Phil Bredesen that has garnered national recognition.

State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said Hamilton County Schools didn't get the full school improvement grant "that they'd hoped to get this time."

However, state officials believe the local system has a "lot of promise and potential to do this. We wanted to give them the planning money so they can hire staff and do the things that they would need to do to be ready [to reapply] in the fall."

If Hamilton County's second application for a State Improvement Grant is successful, it will get greater autonomy, responsibility and resources to turn around low-performing schools.

The system can use the money to hire the best teachers, add programs, extend hours, use new technologies or implement other innovations to turn around low-performing schools.

State Achievement School District Superintendent Chris Barbric said there are 85 "priority" schools in the state, all in the Chattanooga, Memphis and Nashville systems.

Many of them eventually will go into the Achievement School District.

"Over time we expect not only to grow but bring some of the Chattanooga schools into ASD well, either as charters or schools that we might be running," Barbric said.

He said the innovation zone "potentially could" avert that from happening.

"But if the schools aren't making progress in the innovation zone at a rate we feel is sufficient, than at any point in time we have the authority to bring the schools into ASD," Barbric said. "The innovation zone is an opportunity and it's an important opportunity for the local districts to still be in involved and work in the priority schools."

Huffman said that in the state's waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Tennessee has committed "a great deal of resources to turning around the bottom 5 percent of schools in this state."

Staff writer Kevin Hardy contributed to this story.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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