City of Chattanooga employee Jason McKinney test fires a straw rocket during a STEM works! presentation during the Community Stakeholder's Professional Development workshop at the South Chattanooga Youth and Family Development Center on Wednesday, May 9, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

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School leaders, community organizations come together to find what works best for county's highest-need students

It takes a village, the saying goes — and a village is exactly what leaders of Hamilton County Schools' Opportunity Zone hope to build.

District leaders, principals of the 12 historically under-performing schools that make up the Opportunity Zone, and representatives from dozens of local organizations and agencies gathered at the South Chattanooga Youth and Family Development Center on Wednesday to network, workshop and figure out how collectively they could best support some of the county's highest-need students.

"We want to build community, even with our community partners, so that we are all on the same page," said Melissa Graham, coordinator of community schools for Hamilton County Schools.

Over the past several months, Graham, her counterpart, John Cunningham, and other district officials have been working to inventory what local agencies — such as Girls Inc., Centerstone, the Bethlehem Center, La Paz, and more — are working in the district's schools, and how to align those services with what the district is trying to achieve.

"It helps build connections with the students when the language you are speaking is the same language that their principals are speaking, that their teachers and parents are speaking," Graham said.

A mammoth effort has already gone into establishing community-school models in four of the Opportunity Zone schools — East Lake Academy, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary and Orchard Knob Middle schools — which will officially launch this fall. Many of those initiatives rely on funding, time and manpower from the more than 100 community organizations that actively partner in 73 of Hamilton County's schools.

"We have five focus areas in the Opportunity Zone one of them is the supportive village. Today is all about the supportive village and surrounding our students with every possible support," said Jill Levine, chief of the Opportunity Zone. "We often see that people want to help our schools, but they don't know how. Here is a concrete step for providing opportunities for how to provide services and engage."

The district also is in the beginning stages of developing a "Partners in Education" model that will include a point person in every school to coordinate with outside organizations and volunteers as well as a point person at each organization and an online partner portal that will allow schools and volunteers to communicate about what the school needs.

"One thing that Chattanooga and Hamilton County are really blessed with is we aren't pulling on anyone to join we have willing partners," said Janelle Drake, the district's community engagement specialist.

One of the activities at Wednesday's workshops included a speed-dating-style networking lunch in which representatives from each of the schools met representatives from the organizations and learned about the services they offer — after-school programs, summer camps, tutoring, counseling, mentoring, etc. — that could benefit their students.

Research shows and educators know that students often need more than what they get during a seven-hour school day or a set amount of time in class.

Debbie Rosenow, the literacy coordinator for the Opportunity Zone who led some of the workshop's lessons on literacy instruction and reading strategies, said ideally, district officials would meet with organizations throughout the year to inform them of what is happening in the classrooms and to figure out what they needed to help support students.

Clare Conway, program coordinator at Girls Inc., said she works around literacy instruction with the students Girls Inc. serves, but Wednesday's STEM workshop was extremely helpful in providing her with strategies when working with kids outside the classroom.

"It's really helpful to hear what's going on in the schools and classrooms," she said.

Girls Inc. chief executive officer Melissa Blevins agreed.

"I think it is critical for us to be able to support the school systems" she said. "We are serving students and hearingwhat is going on helps us have the most impact as community partners."

Sometimes, partners have struggled with connecting with the right person at a school after a staffing or role change and aren't able to get the word out about an opportunity available to students.

During one of Wednesday's sessions, Rachel DeVore, director of education for the Bethlehem Center, Girls Inc. representatives and Wonjen Bagley, executive director of Bridge Scholars of Chattanooga, collaborated on how to access student data or advertise camp opportunities available this summer.

Graham said this is exactly what she hopes to see as partners are gathered to work more cohesively across the zone and the district.

Graham also outlined five of the biggest things partners should know about the district's work in the Opportunity Zone, which Superintendent Bryan Johnson created in response to the possibility of the state's takeover of the district's lowest performing schools last fall.

Leaders are celebrating parents with events such as Monday night's "Oscars of the Opportunity Zone," orchestrated by Graham to celebrate parent involvement; the schools are exploring how to support students over the summer when they transition from elementary to middle or middle to high school, which aligns with the district's focus on middle school; and partners are stepping up, Graham said.

The school district has even locked down lead partners for the four community schools in the fall, with the Urban League of Chattanooga signing on to serve as the lead partner for Orchard Knob Elementary School. On Point had already announced its intention to partner with Dalewood and Orchard Knob middle schools and the YMCA is leading the initiative at East Lake Academy.

The district hopes to organize community partners in each of the newly announced learning communities, but for now, Graham and her team are focused on some of the county's most underserved schools.

"The schools in the Opportunity Zone are different," Graham said. "The culture and climate inside the schools are different. The needs of the Opportunity Zone's students are drastically higher."

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.