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Chatanooga Elementary Schools Struggle to Improve Low Test Scores

The NewsHour's Special Correspondent for Education John Merrow reports on efforts to fix a group of troubled elementary schools in Tennessee.

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  • JOHN MERROW, NewsHour Special Correspondent:

    In large cities, like Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York, efforts to fix failing schools are ongoing with varying degrees of success. But failing schools are also an issue in small cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, population 310,000.

    In 2000, a report came out listing the lowest-performing elementary schools in all of Tennessee. Nine of the bottom 20 were in inner-city Chattanooga.

    Natalie Elder is the principal at one of these schools.

  • NATALIE ELDER, Principal:

    Out of 1,044 schools in the state of Tennessee, I was 1,044. That was the most depressing feeling in the world.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    The other eight were almost as bad: Reading scores were among the lowest in the state; behavior problems were rampant; and, in some, teachers often did not even show up; schools lacked basic resources; and the buildings were falling apart, according to Principal Rebecca Everett.

  • REBECCA EVERETT, Principal:

    I walked into a building that had no floors. I walked into a building that the restrooms were completely torn apart. There were snakes crawling around the rafters.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    We sat down with a group of teachers from several of these schools to find out what they thought.

  • BARBARA O’HARA, Teacher:

    We had principals coming in, principals leaving out. And each time you would get started on a focus, then you'd change, then another principal would have another type of focus.

  • SYLVIA GREENE, Consulting Teacher:

    The turnover in leadership, of course, led to a high teacher turnover.

  • LINDSAY STARNES, Teacher:

    At the beginning of the year, you know, before school started, a lot of the positions weren't even filled.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    This was a problem Chattanooga could not ignore.

  • DAN CHALLENER, President, Public Education Foundation:

    We don't want to have half of the lowest-performing schools. Memphis has four times as many poor children, and they had two or three schools. We had nine.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Dan Challener is president of Chattanooga's Public Education Foundation, PEF.

  • DAN CHALLENER:

    It was just a moment where everybody said, "We have got to do something."

    The goals are crystal clear….

  • JOHN MERROW:

    PEF formed a partnership with the Benwood Foundation, also in Chattanooga. Corinne Allen is executive director of the Benwood Foundation.

  • CORINNE ALLEN, Exec. Dir., The Benwood Foundation:

    Our trustees said this is inexcusable, unacceptable. And for the first time in our history, we said we're prepared to put $5 million over the course of five years.

  • DAN CHALLENER:

    This is about everybody saying, "We can do this. We know how to do this, but how can we help?"

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Together, the two organizations contributed $7.5 million over five years and persuaded other organizations to get involved in what became known as the Benwood Initiative, but only after getting the school system to promise to do whatever it would take to fix those schools.

    Superintendent Jesse Register was aware of the problems.

  • JESSE REGISTER, Superintendent:

    People would get jobs in the district by agreeing to teach in the inner-city schools and they would stay just long enough to get a transfer out, move to another school, so there was a revolving door of new teachers. And then there was a group of people who collected who couldn't be successful in other schools.