published Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Study highlights Chattanooga region's education gap

WHAT IT SAYS

Highlights from the report include:

• The gaps are wide -- Almost 50 percent of students at Thrasher, Nolan and Lookout Mountain elementary schools scored advanced in math compared to about 5 percent at Barger, Woodmore, Orchard Knob, East Lake and Clifton Hills elementary schools.

• Tennessee spends less -- Among all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the Census Bureau ranked Tennessee 49th for K-12 education spending per-pupil, ahead of only Idaho and Utah

• Hamilton County spends even less -- Adjusted for inflation, the state spent about $493 more per-pupil in 2012 than in 2007. Yet on the same metric, spending in Hamilton County decreased $321 per student.

• School quality is associated with home values -- The average home cost per square foot in East Ridge was about $62 compared to $131 near Normal Park, according to an analysis.

• Poverty isn't equally distributed among races -- Almost 22 percent of Hamilton County's black population lives in extreme-poverty neighborhoods compared to 2.6 percent of whites and 18 percent of Hispanics.

Source: The State of the Chattanooga Region Report: Education, The Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies

Ochs Education Report
Ochs Education Report

In Hamilton County, there are parallel worlds -- with crime, with health, and with schools.

There are the inner-city streets ridden with gangs and drugs. And there are the neatly appointed homes in peaceful subdivisions.

There are urban neighborhoods with short life expectancies and high rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease. And there are affluent areas where preventive care and insurance are within reach.

With education, it's a similar story.

A child's shot at success in Hamilton County Schools is largely based on where he gets on the bus each morning. Student achievement, like health or crime, is easily traced by zip codes and school zones, according to the recently released "State of the Chattanooga Region Report: Education," written by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies.

The report contends what many already know: Where a child lives and goes to school has a significant impact on how well he'll do.

"As the level of economic disadvantage goes up, standardized test scores go down and disciplinary problems go up," the report states.

A mix of good and bad schools is normal for most urban districts, the report states, and inequality in performance isn't all about school quality.

Teachers and administrators in the poorest schools are dedicated. But those students come in already facing many obstacles: more single-parent households, shorter life spans, lower incomes, poorer health care, less education and higher-crime neighborhoods.

All of that can play a role in lowering student achievement. And schools shouldn't be tasked with solving all social ills.

And challenges such as poverty and a larger population of students learning English are growing. Yet education funding isn't keeping up, according to the report.

"The expectations are higher but the circumstances are more difficult," said Ken Chilton, president and CEO of the Ochs Center and the author of the report.

Chilton said this report's findings are similar to a health study released last week by Ochs, which also found wide discrepancies based in large part on geography.

But the idea of two different systems, two different worlds which Chattanoogans experience isn't new.

"To decision makers and leaders, I think they're fully aware of it," Chilton said. "I think the general public might be a little less aware and less sympathetic."

TO THE POINT

"What is the state of public K-12 education in Chattanooga? It depends on your address."

— First line from "State of the Chattanooga Region Report: Education"

That's why talking about the disparities is key, said school board member Jeffrey Wilson. He represents some of Chattanooga's poorest and lowest-performing schools like Brainerd High, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary.

"I think part of the problem is we tend to ignore the crisis," he said.

Also crucial is coming to terms with the idea that it takes more money, more manpower to teach students who come into school with so much baggage from home or the neighborhood.

"We need to look at our resources," Wilson said. "And not always equally. It's not an issue of equality but of equity."

Board member Donna Horn, who represents more affluent schools like Westview Elementary and East Hamilton Middle-High School, noted that students in low-performing, poor and high-minority schools still can and do excel.

She cites the example of the Smart sisters from The Howard School.

They were back-to-back valedictorians, Derquazia last year and Deroneasha this year.

That's no accident.

Horn also said so much more than just poverty can affect gaps in achievement. Things like peer groups and parents' attitudes about education can help perpetuate cycles.

"I think we're all very aware," she said. "We just don't have a quick fix for it."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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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