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TN: Hamilton County urban schools nurture good teachers


Professional development in Hamilton County helps teachers reach the individual students at their schools.

Summary: This urban school district needed a new approach to teacher retention when a number of its elementary schools were ranked among the twenty lowest performing schools in the state. The solution, called the Benwood Initiative, uses a multifaceted approach that has helped district teachers find a professional home. Now schools are showing progress in many areas including staff stability and acadamic achievement.


While many urban schools struggle to find and retain teachers willing to do the tough job of teaching low-income students, school and community leaders in Hamilton County, Tennessee, have mastered this challenge with effective leadership, support, professional development, and incentives and rewards.

They’ve created a win-win situation: The district’s multifaceted approach helps teachers find a professional home that provides recognition for their hard work and helps them continually improve their skills, and the school and district leaders benefit from a stable staff working as a team to improve student learning. “The big difference between suburban and inner-city schools was that factor—stability,” said Superintendent Jesse Register. “Good teachers stay in suburban schools and become part of a team and become very effective.” Together with district leaders,

District characteristics
Name: Hamilton County SD
State: TN
Type: Urban
Grades: Pre-k–12
Enrollment: 40,100
Students per teacher: 15

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 52.3%
English language learners: 1.9%
Students with disabilities: 21.3%
White: 62%
Black: 33.4%
Hispanic: 2.8%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.5%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 0.2%
Other: n.a.
Source: Tennessee Department of Education
teachers, and community supporters, this is the environment Register worked hard to build in Hamilton County Schools.

The Hamilton County district was created in 1997 when schools in Chattanooga city merged with the surrounding suburban area schools, and Jesse Register was hired as superintendent. The need for a new approach to teacher retention became evident in 2000, when nine Hamilton County elementary schools were ranked among the 20 lowest performing schools in the state.

These nine hard-to-staff urban schools had high teacher turnover with an abundance of inexperienced teachers or those who, according to Register, “couldn’t survive in other places.”

To plan for change, the school board had a retreat and suggested an incentive-based strategic plan, said Chip Baker, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Education. Working with the school board, the central office staff, and the teachers’ union, “Register led the charge,” Baker said.
The district administration worked in cooperation with the teachers’ union to carry out the strategic plan, which included support for new teacher recruitment processes that informed principals sooner about openings for the coming year, Register said.

To start the process rolling, Register overhauled school leadership teams and in some cases reconstituted schools. Among their first challenges, the new leaders had to decide which teachers to keep. But Register said, “We’ve had great support from the teachers’ union. We’ve jointly recognized the need to make some real improvements in these schools.”

Hamilton County’s approach includes a program called the Benwood Initiative, which is focused on the nine low-performing elementary schools (now down to eight). The program is funded by the Benwood Foundation along with funds from the local Public Education Foundation (PEF), an organization that administers a variety of grants for the district’s schools and brings together the forces of community and business leaders, educational researchers, philanthropic foundations, and the schools’ own staff members.

The results are encouraging. Since 2000, the so-called Benwood schools have shown progress in many areas, including staff stability and academic achievement, said PEF President Dan Challener. Foundation figures show that the percentage of 3rd graders reading at or above grade level at these schools rose from 22.6 percent in 2001 to 35.9 percent in 2003, putting the Benwood schools among the top 10 percent of gainers in the state. Instead of bemoaning a downward spin, these nine schools now celebrate growth.

Emily Baker, principal of East Side Elementary, said the ongoing use of data is vital to success at her Benwood school. East Side’s student population is 98 percent economically disadvantaged, 66 percent Black, and 27 percent Hispanic. Between 2004 and 2005, East Side’s overall reading scores increased by 15 percent. Gains were shown in every subgroup. East Side teachers use data to gage their effectiveness and to look at their students’ achievement in the previous school year. Based on the data, teachers adapt instruction to meet the students’ needs, Baker said. Professional development also is differentiated for teachers, with a strong focus in literacy teaching.

Teachers surveyed by PEF said that principals can help them to be effective through support and guidance and by providing professional development resources to help them get the job done. A “tremendous investment” in professional development is the key to teacher improvement, Register agreed. The district used Title I funds to place a consulting teacher in each of the high-poverty elementary schools. These consulting teachers are experts in curriculum and instruction and provide support via demonstrations, model teaching, and work in the classrooms with their colleagues.

In addition to on-site professional development, teachers at high-poverty schools can apply for a free master’s degree in urban education at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The master’s program is funded by the Osborne Foundation and PEF. A leadership program funded by the Annenberg Foundation and PEF has also helped school teams focus on instructional leadership, Register said.

With these extra opportunities come new challenges. Now educators in other Hamilton County schools want some of the same benefits, Register said. “Some people in the suburban part of the county envy the focus on the schools in the city,” acknowledged Baker. But the district would have to find a way to fund these rewards and incentives to build on the successes systemwide.

A successful school improvement effort such as this one starts with a superintendent “who has a vision and communicates well with the board,” said Baker, and it hinges on using data and following a strategic plan. “It’s kind of like a large ship,” he said. “As you turn the wheel it doesn’t happen right away. You have to have the fortitude to stay with the programs and adjust as necessary.”

The school board and union shared a common vision and provided strong support for the district’s goals, said Register, who will retire in June. But it’s important to note that the common vision for the outcome did not demand a one-size-fits-all approach to meeting it, Challener said. “We’ve honored their differences and honored what they know about their kids, their schools, and their communities,” he said, and the teachers and administrators have been empowered to find their own paths to success.

Lessons learned
  • Start with a new leadership team. Hamilton County has reconstituted 13 schools, hiring a new principal and a team including the assistant principal and a consulting teacher to coach and mentor staff.
  • Have the leadership team get to know the faculty first, then pick which teachers will stay and which need to move on.
  • Ensure that transferred teachers get guidance and support from successful colleagues at the new school, and hold the transferred teachers to higher expectations.
  • Give school leaders and teachers at the high-priority schools varied opportunities for on-the-job professional development.
  • Give the school staff opportunities for academic programs that apply directly to their professional responsibilities. For example, teachers in the urban master’s degree program attend with a cohort of colleagues who can empathize and share ideas.
  • Use data and examples to help teachers see what highly effective teaching looks like.
  • Reward success—with financial incentives, public praise, and more growth opportunities.
  • Communicate results to the community, and students will benefit in multiple ways.


Chip Baker
School Board Chairman
Phone: 423-886-1765
Email: baker_chip@hcde.org

Pat Bowers
Public Information
Phone: 423-209-8615
Email: bowers_pat@hcde.org

Posted: May 23, 2006

©2006 Center for Public Education

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