published Sunday, June 15th, 2014

New nonprofit aims to help public schools in Chattanooga area

Out of the classrooms and onto the streets.

Organizers of a new local nonprofit aimed at improving public education say their work will focus on igniting the public through grass-roots organizing.

State and national educational reforms have sought to improve the quality of public education by changing school accountability systems, altering teacher tenure rules and switching to more rigorous standards, among other efforts. Locally, the Public Education Foundation has more than two decades of experience working with local schools to help new teachers, train principals and work with students on college and career goals.

The new local group, UnifiEd, will work to get parents and community members interested in and willing to advocate for public schools. Both UnifiEd organizers and PEF President Dan Challener said the new group won’t compete with the mission of the Public Education Foundation.

“I am convinced that [the advocacy is] the missing piece,” said UnifiEd board member Edna Varner. “We’ve got the educators working hard on the inside. We’re making incremental improvements, but we’re nowhere near the results we need. We just haven’t engaged the public.”

Varner, a retired teacher and principal, now consults with the school district and the Public Education Foundation. She said community members want to be more involved in public education, but oftentimes don’t know how to help.

“In order to get the real momentum we need, the public needs to know what it can do,” she said.

The organization will put some pressure on the school board and school system, asking, for instance, that board meetings be held out in the community, not at the central office. Or that minutes from meetings be posted online quickly. But the group doesn’t intended to be adversarial.

“We’re going to push them to do things a little differently to increase public support,” Chief Executive Director Elizabeth Crews said. “But we do want to support them.”

The group soon will hold candidate forums and distribute surveys for the Aug. 7 school board elections.

Altogether, the organization plans to hire 13 employees, including nine “education engagement coordinators” to help organize residents of each of the nine county school board districts. They’ll work directly with parents and community members to get them interested in public education.

“You’re talking about forums, you’re talking about neighborhood meetings, you’re talking about house parties,” Deputy Executive Director Lakwesha Ewing said. “You’re talking about building this groundswell movement.”

Linda Mosley, another UnifiEd board member and a former school board member, said she has experienced a general defeatist attitude when it comes to the state of schools. She said she was surprised by how few people reached out to her when she was on the board, and she hopes the new group can raise the collective voice of the community.

“The school district is just maintaining status quo. Even some of our more vocal school board members don’t seem to be shaking the trees very much these days,” she said. “We’re just maintaining status quo, and that’s not good enough. We need to be moving up, up, up.”

UnifiEd is still seeking funds, but initial funders include the Benwood Foundation, the Maclellan Foundation and the Footprint Foundation, a spinoff of the Lyndhurst Foundation. Altogether, the group hopes to raise $600,000 annually.

Benwood President Sarah Morgan said the mission of the new group dovetails with Benwood’s 15 years worth of work in public schools. The foundation has invested more than $18 million on various internal efforts to improve schools. But Morgan said they’ve never tried a large-scale effort to rally the public.

“If we want to have a strong school system, we’ve got to be a better public,” she said.

And Morgan said now is the time, as more outsiders are moving in and more businesses are clamoring for better public schools.

“We believe fundamentally that Chattanooga is not going to become that great city without a great public education system,” she said.

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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