Almost three weeks after a controversial presentation by a visiting speaker, Hamilton County schools superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson has issued a public response.  Robert Jackson, whose website describes him as a former NFL player and teacher, spoke on August 2nd to teachers at the annual Urban Education Institute. The program was held at Bayside Baptist Church in Chattanooga. Many of the teachers who attended are assigned to Opportunity Zone schools, which include twelve county schools that have been identified as "low performing" with high percentages of minority students.

Patrick Hampton, who is associated with the group "Hamilton Flourishes" first revealed some contents from Jackson's speech on a Facebook post shortly after the program ended.  He posted photos of slides that were presented in Jackson's program.  The photos were apparently taken by an unidentified teacher who attended the program.  Some of the slides referenced "white privilege" and Hampton tweeted, "This is what Hamilton County employees and teachers had to sit through. This is called professional development. The liberal left is running the school systems and pushing their agenda onto our children with our tax dollars."

In response, school district spokesperson Tim Hensley said, "The slides have been taken out of context and misrepresented in Facebook posts. The slides are being misrepresented as a presentation on white privilege. For the slides in question, the speaker was reviewing terms that can impact perception and definitions attached to the terms when the slides were used. White Privilege was one of several terms on slides during the short part of the presentation."

The dispute has gone viral in recent weeks, and resulted in a heated exchange between School Board members at a recent meeting.  District 1 representative Rhonda Thurman called for advance reviews of outside speakers, and has asked for copies of Jackson's presentation.  District 4 representative Tiffanie Robinson disagrees with Thurman.  She said the program helped teachers better understand their students, saying that many teachers are unfamiliar with their students' backgrounds, perceptions and family situations.

In a statement released Wednesday August 21st, Dr. Johnson touted recent improvements in student achievement countywide, and for the first time addressed the "white privilege" controversy.  

He said, "To accelerate success and continue to turn the corner as a system, we must understand the potential perspectives of our students across communities. We also know that we must hold all children to high expectations. That was the key message of the presentation that has generated so much conversation. The schools that were a part of the training serve students that are 90+ percent free and reduced lunch and have experienced challenges with student achievement gains. As a community, approaching our schools that have chronically underperformed the same way that we have for decades and yet expecting a different result does not make sense. We have acknowledged on multiple occasions that we will do a better job of vetting third-party, external material. We hate this caused a distraction from the great work being done in our school district. For that, we do apologize to our teachers, leaders, and students who should be and continue to be our focus."

Here is the complete text of Dr. Johnson's statement:

"The focus for Hamilton County Schools is on accelerating student achievement and ensuring that our students graduate future-ready. Serving children is our only agenda. We believe that every student deserves access to an excellent teacher, every school deserves access to an excellent leader, and every school deserves access to excellent resources to meet the needs of our diverse learners. Our work to improve as a district, resulting in the historic academic gains we recently announced, touched all communities. We want all students to be successful. We want all of our schools to be successful. Our community must acknowledge that many of our schools have not experienced the consistent success desired for decades. Just over two years ago, the state department had proposed a take-over of chronically underperforming schools. This year, 9 of the 12 schools that have chronically underachieved met or exceeded state expectations for student academic growth.

Additionally, it has been nearly a decade since our school district experienced the system-wide success we did this year. To have a school district that moved from ranking #130 out of 146 school systems in 2016-2017 for student academic growth to #2 just two years later is truly a testament to the work that is happening in classrooms and schools across the district. To have 45 schools earn a Level 5 in student growth, and 32 Reward Schools is also a testament to this great work. Additionally, 84 percent of the schools in Hamilton County are at or above the state expectation for student academic growth, and 80 percent of our great teachers were the same. Lastly, we out-achieved the state average in five of the eight reported areas, which is the first time our district has achieved that feat in many years. These academic accomplishments are significant.

We also acknowledge there is still a lot of work to do.  We want our schools that have performed well historically to continue to accelerate achievement and our schools that haven’t to improve.  We desire that all schools in all communities be exceptional environments for learning!

To accelerate success and continue to turn the corner as a system, we must understand the potential perspectives of our students across communities. We also know that we must hold all children to high expectations. That was the key message of the presentation that has generated so much conversation. The schools that were a part of the training serve students that are 90+ percent free and reduced lunch and have experienced challenges with student achievement gains. As a community, approaching our schools that have chronically underperformed the same way that we have for decades and yet expecting a different result does not make sense. We have acknowledged on multiple occasions that we will do a better job of vetting third-party, external material. We hate this caused a distraction from the great work being done in our school district. For that, we do apologize to our teachers, leaders, and students who should be and continue to be our focus.

To our students, teachers, leaders, and staff: You accomplished a remarkable feat this past school year and had a great start to this year!  You’ve accomplished the goal of being the fastest improving school district in Tennessee, now, let’s become the BEST school district in Tennessee! 

We hope the community’s focus remains on the historic academic gains of our schools and children and how we come together to continue to accelerate that work and support ALL learners. Our community should come together to congratulate and encourage our teachers, leaders, and, most importantly, our students. The best is yet to come for Hamilton County Schools. We will continue to have important conversations about accelerating student achievement and improving facilities.  We hope that the community joins us in making our children a priority and placing their needs above everything else. Let’s collectively make our only “agenda” the one that puts our children first. Putting children first made Hamilton County Schools the fastest improving school system in Tennessee and will take us to unprecedented heights."