published Saturday, July 12th, 2014

School board buzz could be telling

The buzz throughout the auditorium was palpable. A high level of anticipation and excitement existed. As if the president of the United States or, at the very least, a celebrity entertainer was about to enter.

Men, women and children -- about 200 in all -- gathered in the auditorium of Dalewood Middle School on a sunny Thursday night when they easily might have been elsewhere. They were all there for ... wait for it ... a Hamilton County Board of Education debate.

Which candidate won or lost the debate, which was sponsored by UnifiEd, and which one got the most cheers mattered less than the size of the crowd that attended a meeting on the subject of public education.

The District 5 race for the seat being vacated by Jeffrey Wilson has drawn seven contenders, seven times more than the number of candidates for two Hamilton County Commission seats this year.

Whether the crowd present was herded there by UnifiEd, a new organization which wants to rally more community interest in education, or whether members came on their own, they were there to hear from people who had put themselves forward to make a difference.

Among the schools in District 5 are Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle and Woodmore Elementary. All three are among the lowest performing 5 percent of schools in Tennessee.

With the school district in receipt of a three-year, $10.5 million grant from the state Department of Education to help turn around those three schools -- along with Orchard Knob Elementary and Orchard Knob Middle -- they soon may be among the most improved schools in the state.

But the people in attendance couldn't touch the millions and may not have even known about the grant, with which the county has extended the school day, offered more specialized programs and given higher pay to some teachers. What they wanted is someone local -- someone they could call, see or email (and get a response) -- fighting for their children, their schools.

A conversation between two women in the auditorium before the debate was probably typical of exchanges throughout the hall.

"I just want to see us do better." "Me, too."

The next school board member, another said, must be someone "not just sitting up there in a seat."

"Whoever steps into that seat," the other one responded, "is going to have to work."

Six of the seven candidates attended. One who was present said she was suspending her campaign.

The remaining five were passionate in addressing those present and used words such as "accountability," "accessibility," "communication," "investment" and "safety." They declared they wanted to find "community partners," make sure there is "adequate funding," "improve educational opportunities" and not "duplicate services."

None of the five was ready to commit wholeheartedly to Common Core, a nationwide set of standards in math and literacy that the state has delayed for a year in implementing. All had or have children attending public schools or were a product of public schools themselves. A majority of the five didn't believe the district got its share of building funds from the HamiltonCounty Commission.

A few had out-of-the-box thoughts such as an all-male elementary school in the district; churches intentionally adopting individual schools (instead of the informal partnerships some have now); restoring (assumably public) prayer; and opening schools for longer hours in order to be community centers with activities such as cooking classes, GED training and fathering classes.

The biggest applause line of the evening came when one candidate stated the way to address equity in teacher pay and school resources is by "addressing parents."

In other words, increasing teacher pay and school resources is important, but it's more important for parents, grandparents or guardians to ensure their individual students understand that education is job one.

If 200 people attend a school board debate in a district with low-performing schools, it may be that a corner has been turned, that they're tired of their schools being a feeder for the mean streets, that they're ready to volunteer, advocate, and, as one candidate said, help bridge the gap by connecting the pieces.

Fortunately, they now have a slate of engaged, passionate and energetic candidates who want to be a partner in that effort.

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