Thanks to Mark for sharing with Brian's Blog his report and photo's from the Chilhowee meeting.
The 3-hour meeting at Chilhowee Intermediate School last night was well-attended by parents from the Carter, Gibbs, Fulton, and Austin-East high school districts of Knox County. No one there was happy at all with the proposed rezoning.
One elderly black man started off by saying that the students at Carter High had demonstrated that they didn't want to associated with Austin-East students in the past, and he was wondering why the school superintendent is proposing that they try to force students who are now attending Carter, Gibbs, and Fulton to go to Austin-East now.
MPC Commissioner Mose Lobetti and attorney Nick Della Volpe, from Town Hall East, both asked the question of why are neighborhoods being split up. Many asked why Holston Hills, one of the 80-year-old historic neighborhoods in Knoxville, is being picked on again. They just want to be left alone and are happy with the status quo.
None of the residents have asked for this to happen. The school administration is simply admitting that Austin-East is not a viable school now. Mr. Thomas, the assistant superintendent, said that is the case. The entire magnet school concept is broken and a dismal failure.
Despite the fact that any child in the entire county can go to Austin-East under the magnet school plan, and that they can also receive taxpayer-funded transportation to go there, no matter how far away they live from it, it is losing students. Some of the course offerings that were supposed to be offered only at the magnet school are being offered by other schools in the county, which exacerbates the problem.
A poll was taken of the crowd in attendance, and 100% of them voted that there be no changes made whatsoever to these districts in Northeast Knoxville and Knox County. Another poll was taken, and not one parent said they would send their child to Austin-East. This included many black parents in attendance, whose children go to Carter, Fulton, and Gibbs now. Even the minority children going to those high schools are refusing to go to Austin-East.
Most everyone agreed that the academics simply aren't working at Austin-East. The students going there chronically underperformed every other high school in the county in virtually every subject area, according to state statistics.
The concept of open zoning was broached, which is now being done in Williamson County, allowing anyone to go to any school they choose. This was once the case in Knox County, too. There is no reason why it can't be done again.
A further point was made that the magnet school experiment is broken. Violence, lack of discipline, and lack of quality programs at Austin-East were reported by teachers who have refused to work there any longer. While there may not be violence within the school walls, crime is rampant in the neighborhood around it, including drugs, shootings, prostitution, etc.
Only a paltry $6,000 is proposed to be added to the magnet school budget next year, meaning that these problems will continue. The school board isn't willing to put money into a new high school on the east side of town in a better neighborhood like they were on the west side.
Black and white parents alike said they would either move out of the area into the county or home school their children or send them to private or Christian schools in the area before they will send their kids to Austin-East. This was a point that was made over and over again.
The school board should not be in the business of socially re-engineering the neighborhoods. Some have suggested that the reason for all of this is that it is designed to devalue properties in Holston Hills, Chilhowee Hills, and Spring Hill, in order to make those nice homes more affordable for minorities.
One parent asked why everything had to be dragged down to the lowest common denominator. He likened the proposed changes in the area to trying to put out a raging house fire with a garden hose. It is clear that trying to send more white kids to Austin-East won't solve that school's problems.
One suggestion that was being made was that Austin-East, since it is a magnet school that can be attended by everyone in the county, not have a zone at all. This is the way it is done with many magnet schools nationally. The students in the current Austin-East district would be disbursed to the zones around it, Fulton, Gibbs, Carter, South-Doyle, and West, with the choice to go either to the one of those five that is closest to them or continuing to go to Austin-East.
Another is to close Austin-East as a traditional high school and make it either a middle school, as was done with Holston a few years ago, or turn it into a trade or technical school for students who don't want to attend college, very much like Stair Tech was in Knoxville many years ago. There is a true market for a school that would focus on teaching students a trade, rather than preparing them for college. With all of the trade and service industry jobs that are growing, that is a solution that should be considered for Austin-East.
One concern is that Carter High will lose course offerings by losing students. One high school shouldn't suffer at the expense of trying to prop up another failed one, Austin-East. In fact, many of the present students at Austin-East would rather go elsewhere and that would help desegregate the entire high school system more if they were allowed to do so.
The consensus was that times have changed, and that keeping a school in a neighborhood that is riddled with crime simply doesn't make sense. The grocery at Five Points failed due to lack of patronage. Similarly, Austin-East is failing due to people leaving the neighborhood, with homes and businesses being boarded up.
There is no overcrowding issue in these zones and districts like there is in Farragut and West Knox County. The concerns that parents have on the west end, while valid, aren't nearly as serious as the concerns of those of us on the east side of town. The parents on the west end are just upset at having to have their children attend one great school versus another great school.
The parents on the east end however, are being forced to have their children leave marginal schools to attend the worst school in the county. If parents on the west end were being faced with that prospect, there would be a revolt.
It is the hope of the parents on the east side that they will get relief from the school board members who represent those west, north, and south districts. They are getting little sympathy from their own representatives, Sam Anderson and Jim Williams, both of whom indicated they are in favor of the proposed changes, with some reservations and modifications.
It was the consensus of everyone in attendance that moving students around among districts and zones with low populations anyway is simply not the solution. One person opined that "when you mess with the schools, you mess with the community and neighborhood in general." Good neighborhoods depend on good schools.
One parent said she was told by a Knox County Assistant District Attorney General that Austin-East was a "cesspool of young thugs, filled with gangs." Parents want their children to have a good, safe education in a learning environment. That simply doesn't exist at Austin-East.
It is time for the school administration and the school board to close such schools that don't provide that environment and those that are under performing. Sending those students to better schools will help raise the academic performance of those students in those poor schools as well.