Foundation's aid key to turnaround

Partnership with schools was hands-on, Chattanooga officials say


CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- The downtown office building at 100 East 10th St. in downtown Chattanooga doesn't look anything like a school. It's not the kind of building likely to be at the center of an education reform movement.

But from Public Education Foundation's fifth-floor suite comes much of the support that's driven the changes in Chattanooga's central-city schools

Although teachers and administrators get most of the accolades for the schools' improvements, those inside the Benwood Initiative say the partnership they built with two public foundations was vital for their success.

The Benwood Foundation and the Public Education Foundation put up a combined $7.5 million in 2000 and 2001, kick-starting the initiative.

The institutes didn't just give the schools money and then step away.


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"It wasn't just a grant," Ray Swoffard, deputy superintendent of Hamilton County schools, said. "They were hands on."

The Public Education Foundation hired a director -- now Clara Sales-Davis -- to monitor school progress and organize the professional development.

She wasn't tied to the administration or to the politics within a public school district.

"You've got to have the accountability piece," Ms. Sales-Davis said. "It's not money that fixes problems, it's the people."

Ms. Sales-Davis helps plan initiativewide strategies and goals, visits schools, delves into data.

The foundation even pays for trips by administrators to see what other school districts are doing that works. She works closely with Susan Swanson, the district's point person for the Benwood Initiative.

"She has the authority, and I have the influence," Ms. Sales-Davis said. "The key word is collaborative."

At times, the outside involvement in public schools has drawn trepidation from some. School board members, Ms. Sales-Davis has heard, won't get involved with the initiative because they feel the foundation is trying to run the district.

"Accountability is often intimidating," she said. " 'How do we measure success?' is an uncomfortable question."

That partnership will soon change. The schools are now shifting out of the Benwood Initiative, where the foundations will be professional development providers.

The whole goal of the Benwood Initiative was for the private foundations to provide up-front money the schools didn't have and then step back once the programs became sustainable on their own.

"We want the district to sustain this, without outside funding," Ms. Sales-Davis said.