District met low ranking with shift in teacher culture

Staff in Chattanooga strive for professional development


Sandi Fain reads with students from bottom left, Bailey Bell, Josie Sudderth, Adrianna Chaman, Dalyn Kil- gore, Jasmine Roberts, and Hailey Skiles during quiet time on the last day of school at Red Bank.
Sandi Fain reads with students from bottom left, Bailey Bell, Josie Sudderth, Adrianna Chaman, Dalyn Kil- gore, Jasmine Roberts, and Hailey Skiles during quiet time on the last day of school at Red Bank.
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — From the sprawling campus of the Hamilton County school district offices to the halls of its central-city schools, a culture shift occurred somewhere in the Benwood Initiative.

Teachers and administrators in Chattanooga talk differently about their schools, and the education they provide, than they once did.

Quality of education has become such a large part of the initiative that staff openly talk about education quality.

In 2000, after Tennessee ranked nine central-city Chattanooga schools as some of the worst in the state, a group of district leaders joined with two private foundations — the Benwood Foundation and the Public Education Foundation, which put up millions of dollars to start the Benwood Initiative.

Red Bank Elementary in Chattanooga is a second-phase Benwood school, a step added to the initiative after the first phase’s success. The school has never been in dire straits like the central-city schools, but administrators wanted to take it from good to great.


Foundation's aid key to turnaround

Teachers say they’ve seen the growth. The staff at Red Bank is improving, reading consultant Roxanne Anthony said between lessons in late May. The members are becoming more mature, better at their jobs.

As Ms. Anthony prepared for a lesson while fellow consultant Sandi Fain handled math lessons, fourth-grade teacher Della Hass walked into their room during a break.

“These guys are good,” she said about the pair.

But teachers aren’t just open about talking about both their and their colleagues’ performances. They’ll readily tell you how effective they think their bosses are doing.

Open about performance

Ask most teachers about their principal, and they’ll likely either answer gushingly or try to avoid the question.

At Benwood schools, when Ms. Fain is asked about her school’s leader, she doesn’t hesitate or try to find the right way to put it.

“Every day, she comes to work a better principal,” Ms. Fain said about Stephanie Hinton.

Some teachers said they also are better now at talking to students about what they expect from them. Patricia Clark, a kindergarten teacher at East Side Elementary, said that’s helped the climate in her school.

“There’s more academic work, instead of fluff or cutesy stuff,” she said. “We are more focused now.”

What’s developed in Chattanooga, through a continual focus on the quality of education done in a positive way, is a culture where people in the school system feel free to talk about each other’s job performance.

It’s just part of their jobs now. And that honesty makes it harder for underperforming teachers and principals to hide in the open.

“People who come to visit here can’t believe how open we are,” Ms. Swanson said. “An unintended consequence of our reforms has been to talk about things openly and to carry on a conversation about it.”

The core elements of the Benwood Initiative are universal. Every teacher can improve, if given support, training, and follow-through by administrators.

But it’s not so simple to just take the model used there and apply it exactly the same to other school districts such as Toledo.

For instance, unlike Toledo, Chattanooga has no principals’ union. A principal who a superintendent thinks is ineffective can be removed. But that puts stronger pressure on a district administration to assess talent at the building level and have the fortitude to make tough decisions. Ray Swoffard, Deputy Superintendent of Chattanooga’s Hamilton County schools, recalls meeting with ministers and leaders of the local NAACP who were upset with the removal of a principal at one of the Benwood schools. Instead of buckling, administrators arrived with a thick folder full of data that showed teachers at the school simply weren’t performing, and the principal wasn’t doing anything about it.

“Halfway through the folder, they said OK,” Mr. Swoffard said.

Staffing at the building level is also drastically different in Chattanooga compared to Toledo. When a school has a teacher vacancy, the principal has strong autonomy to fill the spot. Principals do the interviews and pick the best candidate, allowing those building leaders to craft a staff they believe fits the school.

In Toledo Public Schools, a prospective teacher doesn’t apply to an individual school but to the district. After higher-seniority tenured teachers choose what schools they want to teach in, and staff bump throughout the district based on Toledo teachers’ collective-bargaining agreement, district personnel then place new teachers in buildings with openings.

That means central-city, high-poverty schools tend to get the least-experienced teachers as high-seniority teachers place themselves in more affluent middle-class West Toledo schools.

Reform by expectations

Most education reforms are based on a program, such as a reconfiguration of schools or a particular curriculum model. In Chattanooga’s Benwood Initiative, the focus is on “reforming by expectations.” The initiative-designed goals that were paramount allowed schools to design how they would meet those goals, and then gave them the support to reach the targets.

“We never prescribed to a school how to get it done,” Ms. Swanson said.

Reading consultant Roxanne Anthony reads with Jensen Sudderth at Red Bank School in Chattanooga, Tenn. Ms. Anthony says the staff at the school is improving, and teachers say they’ve seen the growth.
Reading consultant Roxanne Anthony reads with Jensen Sudderth at Red Bank School in Chattanooga, Tenn. Ms. Anthony says the staff at the school is improving, and teachers say they’ve seen the growth.
For instance, the first goal of the initial Benwood phase was to have all third graders reading at grade level in five years. School leaders soon learned their major challenge was that they didn’t know how to assess reading progress in the students. Multiple assessment tools were tried at schools until the schools found what was accurate.

“We gave people the freedom to choose,” Ms. Swanson said, “and they came to a consensus on what worked.”

Schools like those in the Benwood Initiative are often career wastelands. Save for the dedicated few who see teaching the most vulnerable students as their calling, many try to leave the schools as quickly as possible.

It’s not surprising. What is already a hard, thankless job just gets harder in schools where kids lag severely behind peers and there’s little outside support.

But the Benwood Initiative has broken that mold. The schools have become not only more desirable for prospective staff, but they can be used as career launchers.

Many of the young administrators at the first Benwood Schools were promoted to district level administration positions, or to high-profile magnet schools.

“If they could make it at a Benwood school as a principal or assistant principal, they’ve moved up,” Mr. Swoffard said.

Training savored

Teachers want to come to Benwood schools. The initials “PD”— professional development — are talked about constantly. Teachers savor the training. Patricia Clark, the kindergarten teacher at East Side Elementary, said she enjoys growing as a teacher, and her colleagues in richer schools look at her professional development with envy.

“The suburban schools are jealous, mainly about the PD,” she said. “They want the consultants.”

A report prepared for the Public Education Foundation points to tangible results. In 2002, 31.4 percent of teachers at Benwood schools were new to the buildings. By 2005, that rate had shrunk to 17.9 percent.

What has happened is that these schools, which are still filled with poor children who come to the building often several grade levels behind where they should be, are no longer viewed as pariahs in many corners.

Before the Benwood Initiative, Ms. Baker couldn’t get anyone to apply for open positions at her school. Now, a spot at East Side is a cherished commodity. For the last teaching position Ms. Baker filled, more than 90 teachers applied.

“And the quality is just amazing,” Ms. Baker said about the applicants.

That shows that many teachers want to improve at their craft. They just need the support.

Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: or 419-724-6086.