Fledgling organization targets grassroots change—starting with elections.
Everyone has a personal story about education, because it affects each and every one of us. Whether it is a heartwrenching story of lost opportunities or a tear-inspiring tale about magnificent personal success, education can make or break a person. It’s often the critical piece to determining success or failure in the life of a child. Prisons calculate anticipated inmate numbers based on literacy rates in third-grade children.
When students fall behind, so does a community’s ability to be economically competitive. UnifiEd, a new nonprofit organization, is working to bridge the gap in public education by bringing people—the community—into the process. During this year’s school board race, districts 3, 5, 6, 8 and 9 had elections. And out of the 231,070 registered voters in Hamilton County only 25,694 votes were cast from all five of these districts.
That may seem to you like a dismal percentage of our fellow citizens who participated in the process and voted and you’re right: it is. On the other hand, there are some fascinating successes to point to as well during this school board election. In the District 5 election four years ago only 2,800 votes were cast. This year there were 4,800 votes cast in that same district. That is big.
What does it mean? What was different? Well, District 5 is home to some of the lowest-performing schools in the county. District 5 also had seven very passionate candidates who wanted to make a change in that district and to support the education and future’s of the children in their community. And—UnifiEd happened.
District 5 was identified by UnifiEd as one of the critical races and their machine went to work. Combining the passion and dedication of people who truly care about public education with the logistics, tools and talents of community organizing in action, the UnifiEd team hit the streets.
The debate hosted in District 5 was to a packed house. More than 200 people attended and, more importantly, participated. They came with questions, signs, concerns, Tweets, social media posts and children. Parents came, business leaders came and grandparents came. City council members came, the media came and the mood was vibrant. You could almost feel the hope in the air. As microphones crackled, the audience was rapt. Another audience was following the action via live Tweeting and the frustration and hope present were both electric.
Education is powerful and people are powerful, even though they don’t always realize it. When a situation gives people who care the worst they have an opportunity to show their best. That happened in District 5.
People got out, they volunteered and they encouraged their friends, neighbors and community members to vote. People joined UnifiEd and, during the course of the summer, there were several thousand calls placed to potential voters and several thousand doors knocked on, largely in District 5.
The result was that 2,000 more people voted in District 5 in this school board race than in the race four years ago. That is a statement about the power of people and their passion for change and for success in their schools.
The Public Education Foundation (PEF) has been supporting success in schools for several decades, empowering teachers and building on the public and private partnerships between schools, civic leaders, business leaders and foundations to improve public education. UnifiEd shares their mission of success and targets its efforts at the community.
Through teacher roundtables, education summits, forums, grassroots organizing and community-based meetings and outreach, UnifiEd will bring schools the direction, tools, accountability and flexibility to pursue what works best.
UnifiEd is the missing piece that will connect the public to the schools with real and meaningful support from every corner of the community. The teams, led by Executive Director Elizabeth Crews, Deputy Director Lakweshia Ewing and Engagement Coordinator Jermaine Freeman, will create neighborhood-level teams, investing in individuals on the ground and building transformative connections between communities and schools.
Each team will have the tools and the opportunities to create large-scale change within each school, to share best practices and to advocate for action within the school board and the county commission. In order to create real and substantive change, we have to get specific. UnifiEd will do that with a “Community Pact”. The new organization will develop four commitments derived from community input, meetings, surveys and phone and door canvassing. They will ask the public these questions:
What is the biggest challenge facing public schools in Hamilton County?
What are the greatest opportunities in public education?
What is your public education story?
Lakweshia Ewing, deputy director, beams when she talks about how UnifiEd can impact her community, saying, “You’re talking about building this groundswell movement.”
Whether it is house parties, rallies, debates, forums, summits or parades, the team and their coordinators will create a wave of people who direct the change that they seek and who are motivated to see every student in Hamilton County has the opportunity to succeed.
They will place nine education engagement coordinators into Hamilton County’s school districts, each one working directly with parents, community members and volunteers to get them interested in the process and active in making change.
UnifiEd’s mission is supported by funding from the Benwood Foundation, the Maclellan Foundation and the Footprint Foundation. They are seeking funds from other individuals and organizations and hope to raise $600,000 annually to bring an active, caring public into a stronger school system.
How does public education impact you? One canvasser reported that some folks told him that they didn’t plan to vote in the school board race because their children didn’t go to public school. You could almost see the question mark on this canvasser’s face as he processed that reply.
Whether you have children, grandchildren or dogs, your life is impacted by public education because the power of our community is dependent on the people who will be our future. If you own your house or pay your rent, you are contributing to the property taxes that support public schools.
So, what can you do? How can you help? To learn more about UnifiEd, you can visit www.unifi-ed.org, stop by the office at 1609 McCallie Ave. or call them. You can volunteer, you can support public schools by becoming a part of one of the neighborhood teams and by encouraging your neighbors and friends to volunteer.
Chattanooga is a great city and an innovative community and with a strong, publicly supported public school system, it can be an even greater city with a vibrant future.