Hamilton County School equity plan shows racial, socioeconomic divides

Two school board members want change, but how to achieve it remains difficult



In Game of Thrones, the character Lord Eddard Stark said in the first season that “Winter is coming.” For Hamilton County schools, it’s the winter break that approaches quickly. And, with the break comes change: A new superintendent in Dr. Justin Robertson, and the realization that Hamilton County schools see an equity problem.

During last week’s school board meeting, and after Robertson was named superintendent, an equity plan was discussed. While the board says that change needs to happen, the role the schools and the board play in fixing the divide isn’t going to be easy.

School board member Tiffanie Robinson of District 4 says, “I don’t think I’m going to solve this problem as a board member, but I do think that the world, as a whole, is thinking about these problems in a way that they didn’t think about when you or I were in school.”

District 1 representative Rhonda Thurman added, “The school cannot fix all of these issues. We’re here to educate, and we’re getting so sidetracked by breaking kids … We’re just vulcanizing all of our students, and we’re really calling them out for their differences when we should just be embracing everyone for their differences.”

Those differences matter. Black students face discipline at a rate of nearly four times that of White students for the same offense. In the previous two years, the risk ratio of Black students suspended or expelled in Hamilton County lagged behind the state. This year, Hamilton County almost tripled the state average.

Representation is also an issue. Students tend to perform better when when the diversity of teachers resembles that of the student body. A look at the numbers shows that Whites make up 48 percent of Hamilton County’s student body population, but teachers of color make up only 11 percent. The district has actually tried to get more diversity within teaching ranks, but it hasn’t quite been enough.

Richardson: Truthfully, that’s not the kind of work a school system would typically do, but I mean, this is our innovative approach to finding talent that wants to be there and is passionate about it, but also can relate to our students who need them the most.

Thurman: We’ve hired a group to help hire some minority teachers, and, quite frankly, I’m not sure that that’s done so much good, so I wonder what else can we do if what we’re doing is not working…

The equity plan isn’t going to fix everything overnight, in year one or even year two. Robinson believes the new superintendent – Dr. Robertson – who’s been in and around Hamilton County schools for 20 years, may need to be in for the long haul to make a difference.

Robinson: “I think if we have a superintendent that’s willing to put in the work, even though ti’s going to be so hard,but they’re willing to do the work for a long time…like not just a few years, but really stand by this work for close to a decade. I hope we can get a decade. I would love to get a decade out of Dr. Robertson. Then, I think the needle can move, but it takes consistency.”

The equity plan has not been passed by the board, and still needs tweaks to be fully considered. But one document – this document – isn’t going to end the debate on how to achieve equality through equity.

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