Chattanooga Nonprofit Facilitates Grassroots Change in Local Schools
BY BRITTAIN ELISE WHITESIDE-GALLOWAY
In June 2014, UnifiEd, a Chattanooga-based education non-profit organization comprised of parents, teachers, and citizens, launched with the intention of empowering parents, teachers, and students with the necessary tools and knowledge to navigate the bureaucratic tape surrounding public education and bring about changes they long to see.
“We believe the more students, parents, teachers, and interested public that are involved in the decision-making processes in Hamilton County Department of Education (HCDE), the better our education system will be,” said Executive Director Jonas Barriere, who took the helm in July 2016.
“Local government works best when local residents are empowered to advocate with that government,” Barriere continued. “UnifiEd was created specifically to empower stakeholders—parents, teachers, students, and involved community members—to do just that, and in the nearly three years we’ve been operating, I think we’ve accomplished that.”
UnifiEd is one of three education-focused nonprofits in Chattanooga. However, unlike the other two organizations, the Public Education Foundation and Chattanooga 2.0, UnifiEd is not affiliated with the school system.
“We’ll work with the school system when it’s mutually beneficial, but we’re not a contracted partner on paper or in practice,” Barriere said. “This allows us a certain level of freedom to advocate for the community in a thoughtful but forceful way.”
A key enterprise of UnifiEd is ensuring stakeholders stay up to date about what is happening in Hamilton County schools and are equipped with the necessary tools and resources to enter the bureaucratic arena and initiate the changes they seek, Barriere explains.
“We believe that community activism is critical to creating the best possible school system,” Barriere said. “Part of activism, of course, is education of the activists. Making sure they’re informed about what’s taking place is the first step in getting more people involved.”
To achieve this, UnifiEd brought on board a director of educator engagement, as well as a director of student engagement.
“They’re charged with the difficult work of ensuring students and teachers remain informed about what’s occurring in Hamilton County public schools and their voices are included in the decision-making processes that occur in HCDE and in other government agencies who influence education,” Barriere said.
In 2016, for example, UnifiEd took steps to ensure the community’s voice was heard in the HCDE’s selection of the school system’s new superintendent. UnifiEd was able to rally 300 community members to actively engage their school board members on passing a policy to include the community in the hiring of the school system’s superintendent. UnifiEd’s advocacy led to the school board’s passage of resolutions that would give the community more influence on future superintendent hires.
“One resolution, in particular, will require the school board’s search firm to build a comprehensive community involvement plan, which they’re now currently drafting,” Barriere said. “And another, which is currently in the planning stages, makes way for a series of community forums involving all candidate finalists.”
While the school board works to finalize its community involvement plans, UnifiEd is keeping stride. In March 2017, UnifiEd held a series of 10 community conversations in each of the school system’s nine districts to gain insight into the community’s vision of a new superintendent. More than 100 community members attended the discussions and participated.
Each meeting focused on the current needs of Hamilton County schools, qualities and experiences the community expects the new leader to hold, and ways in which the community can get involved in the recruitment and selection process of the new superintendent.
“Every day, UnifiEd works to empower students, teachers, parents, and the community to build a bolder, brighter future for public education in Hamilton County.”
— JONAS BARRIERE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF UNIFIED
UnifiEd has also taken strategic measures to ensure students’ voices are heard. In 2015, for example, the organization’s Student Voice Team, a group focused on giving voice to Hamilton County students, conducted an informal survey to tease out what high school students cared most about and changes they wanted to see take place.
“The survey’s results indicated that bullying and harassment were at the top of the list, and our team set out to work on these issues,” Barriere said.
In the midst of UnifiEd’s campaign to address bullying and harassment in Hamilton Co. schools, a severe assault took place at Ooltewah High School and made national headlines.
“Our organization was uniquely positioned to champion for this student-voiced cause,” Barriere said. “Because our team was already working on this issue, they were able to step in as experts. They were able to quickly point out to HCDE and other interested parties that the school board was in compliance with state law. Furthermore, our team collaborated with HCDE’s attorney to devise and include legal language for a formal policy at HCDE regarding bullying and harassment, which was adopted by the school board as an official policy.”
The Student Voice Team is taking things up a notch in 2017.
“This year's survey will be more formal, and the goal is to reach 65 percent of HCDE high school students to learn what their biggest issues are,” Barriere said. “The results aren’t yet tallied, but there are a lot of interesting ideas that are taking shape.”
Maintaining its momentum, UnifiEd has its sights set on creative projects this year that will aid stakeholders in making meaningful changes in their schools.
“We have lots of projects in the works that I’m excited about,” Barriere said. “Two larger projects, in particular, that we’ll be working on include fully implementing our PACT for Public Education and promoting a series of climate videos we are releasing as part of our Public School Guide.”
UnifiEd’s PACT for Public Education is a comprehensive plan for improving certain areas in the school system. The plan consists of four key pillars:
Ensuring there is a great teacher in every classroom by investing in our educators and making sure they’re equipped with the necessary resources
Achieving universal excellence by extending equal opportunity to and creating a strong foundation for all students, regardless of socioeconomic status
Building community support for public schools by increasing transparency and accountability
Prioritizing funding for public schools by developing and implementing a strategic financial plan
“Our team will be running separate campaigns for each component of the PACT over the course of the next 18 months,” Barriere said. “Part of our campaigns will focus on recruiting community involvement.”
Barriere is also excited to see the results of the short climate videos—clips illustrating prevailing trends in Hamilton County public schools—that the organization began releasing in early April 2017.
“The videos only last two to three minutes but cover comprehensive data on every school in Hamilton County—from test scores to per-pupil spending to course offerings,” Barriere said. “The clips highlight the culture of learning at each public school in the nine districts.”
Students, parents, teachers, and community members now have access to extensive data on their schools that they can then use to connect with their respective school district’s board member and county commissioner and communicate changes they’re wanting to see in their schools.
COMING TOGETHER FOR A COMMON CAUSE
“UnifiEd can be viewed as a vehicle for change,” Barriere said. “Whether you’re an educator, parent, student, or involved community members, our doors are always open to ideas. We’re here to help anyone with a bold or brilliant idea for public education navigate the bureaucracy—which can be slow-moving or difficult to change—and initiate the change they seek.”
Though UnifiEd can provide the necessary tools and resources to facilitate change in the school system, the organization can’t go it alone—community involvement is key.
“Uniting all stakeholders in Hamilton County around a shared vision for public education is essential, but isn’t easy—it requires hard work from a lot of people,” Barriere said. “If you’re interested in helping our organization and community achieve our mutual education goals, please join us.”
To learn more about Unifi-Ed or to get involved, visit unifi-ed.org or call Jonas Barriere at 423.710.9828.
Brittain is a Columbia, Tennessee native who has called Chattanooga home for nearly a decade. She has a master’s degree in English: Rhetoric and Composition and is a professional freelance B2B and B2C writer and editor, specializing in healthcare and financial copywriting and content marketing. Her work has been featured in various magazines, including MD News and Down Syndrome World. You can check out more of her work at becustomcontent.com and greatbrittainwg.com.