Documentary looks at the issues and challenges facing our own schools
There is nothing quite like the school system to generate heated discussions. One of the benefits of compulsory public education is that it creates a shared experience for community members, one where every person involved has a frame of reference for the discussion and can, for the most part, add their voice in some meaningful way.
One drawback of being human is the overwhelming difficulty of judging those experiences from the perspective of another person. It is no secret that there are stark differences in the way children are educated in Hamilton County. We know this when we look at the outcomes for students from zone to zone, from zip code to zip code. No amount of testing, teacher training, coaching, differentiated instruction, scaffolding, or bussing can solve a problem that is unquestionably linked to economic disparity.
This isn’t to say that these things are useless—each plays a role in bridging a gap that is created by cyclical poverty. But the problem cannot be solved by the school system alone. These ideas are discussed in detail by the latest in local documentary filmmaker Robert Ashton Winslow’s series “Southern Dialogues.”
“Southern Dialogues” is a documentary series that is “an experiment in using web media as an opportunity to listen, to elevate civic dialogue, and reverse the typical relationship between media and political polarization in our lives.”
That the most recent episode focuses on Hamilton County education is not surprising. There are many who see Hamilton County Schools as a failed entity. Many times, attacks are directed at lazy teachers, incompetent administrators, and misuse of funds. For example, The Chattanoogan recently published the salaries of individuals making more than $60,000 within the school system, without giving readers the context of responsibilities, experience, and education level for the people working in those positions. The subtext of the article is clear: “Look how much we pay these failures.”
“Southern Dialogues,” from its outset, looks at the real problem. According to an interview with Pete Cooper, former president of the Chattanooga Community Foundation, “the highest factor that correlates to college entrance exam scores is family income. The higher your family income the more likely you are to go to college.”
Ask anyone who works in education, anyone who has ever taught in a struggling community, anyone who as ever interacted with these populations at all, and they will tell you the same thing. It is incredibly difficult to teach a child whose home life is unstable.
The documentary speaks with many people within the community, from the Benwood Foundation to the Chattanooga chapter of the NAACP. It brings up the idea of “two Chattanoogas” one for the white middle class and wealthy, one for the rest who do not have the ability (or are not invited to) participate in the opportunities Chattanooga offers.
The numbers are staggering and obvious, as seen by UnifiED graphs showing free and reduced lunch percentages that are correlated with student performance. The poorer the student, the lower the proficiency in reading and math. It discusses the initiative begun by embattled and now shamed outgoing Superintendent Rick Smith to raise property taxes by forty-four cents in order to pay for pre-K programs in the poorest districts and bring art and foreign language classes to students across the county. The initiative was unsuccessful.
And yes, it discusses the recent events during an Ooltewah basketball tournament weekend that have created an uproar about bullying across the county. Each story is told through honest interviews with expert insight. There are limited student and teacher voices in the documentary, but Winslow insists that the project is ongoing and more voices will be heard.
The students who do speak, an Ooltewah senior and a Howard junior, highlight the differences in their experiences and discuss learning about the flight of white families to the county schools after desegregation. The population of these schools has remained mostly homogenous ever since.
Edna Varner of Thrive 2055 addresses how the merging of the city and county was meant to minimize economic segregation. “It did not,” Varner says.
Even among our best public schools, there is a significant difference in economic populations. Look at the way the school zone was drawn for Normal Park, one of the highest performing magnet schools in the country. Look at the addresses that were excluded. Look at the incomes of the people who can afford to live on the North Shore.
There is a different type of flight happening in Chattanooga now, one that is not necessarily related to race. Some 30% of students in Hamilton County attend private schools. This percentage is much higher than anywhere else in the state. Our wealthiest citizens have retreated from the public sphere.
One of the richest neighborhoods in the county sits next to Rivermont Elementary School, but it’s doubtful that any of the children that live there attend. Where do they go? Anywhere else. Until everyone in Chattanooga is willing to invest, not only through levied taxes but through human capital, not much is going to change. Schools need investment from everyone, in order to benefit everyone.
To see the documentary series or to add your voice to the discussion, visit: southerndialogues.com/#chattanooga