A Project Worth Sharing: Project Inspire’s Role in Elevating Equity-Minded Leaders

A Project Worth Sharing: Project Inspire’s Role in Elevating Equity-Minded Leaders

It’s a warm spring day in May. School is just about to let out for the year, but there’s still some learning yet to be done at Ooltewah Middle.

Children move from station to station. Today, they get to experience what it would be like to be a student with a different level of ability than their own. One child hobbles on crutches, building empathy for how her classmate with a broken foot might feel. Another experiences the challenge of reading words in a mirror, to simulate what it might be like for a student with dyslexia. All the while, their two teachers, one of them Project Inspire resident Hannah Pell, support the 20 or so children in the class.

Hannah Pell works with a student on crutches

Project Inspire, a program of the Public Education Foundation, specializes in taking professionals who have earned degrees in areas other than education and equipping them to teach in the classroom. It is appealing to those who desire a career change, those who obtained a degree in something they later decided they’d rather not pursue, or just those looking to sow back into their community through the service of teaching.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Hannah and learn more about what made her want to become a teacher, how Project Inspire helped to make that a reality, and the ways in which she’s already giving back to the community we all share.

Tell us a little about your background. What did you do before you began to teach, and what made you want to become a teacher?

I originally went to school to be a physician’s assistant and while I was shadowing a couple different physicians assistants I just kind of realized that they weren’t able to form the kind of relationships with patients that I had envisioned when I thought about going into medicine and helping people. So I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but I did have some experience working at an after school program and being able to form relationships with kids there.

And I worked at a chiropractor’s office while I was still figuring things out. I thought, “I don’t think I really want to be a PA, but I don’t really know what I want to do.” And I realized when kids would come into the office with their parents I really liked explaining things to them, answering questions they had about equipment, or just different things in the office. So that’s when I kind of started thinking about the idea.

What did you do then?

After I graduated college I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and I had applied for Project Inspire, but I didn’t know if I should be a teacher or not. But I went to Colombia, South America and I taught English and science for the semester after I graduated and I just really fell in love with it, especially just the relationships that I was able to form with students. So I was like, “Yes! I could definitely see myself doing this.” And then the next summer I started Project Inspire.

A poster on the wall of Hannah’s classroom

What was your experience in Project Inspire like?

The way the residence program works is we took classes the first 2 months, in June and July, and came to the classroom in August. From the very first day, my [mentor] teacher let me do some different things, like leading warmups, or introducing certain activities, but we weren’t teaching full time until the end of the fall, which was a great way to ease into it.

It’s a special opportunity because you have a lot more time, since you’re not teaching all the time and immediately taking on all the responsibility of teaching, to form deeper relationships with students. It helps you realize how important those relationships are when you’re teaching and trying to motivate students to learn and get them excited.

The Hamilton County community has been talking a lot about issues around equity for our students. What does equity mean to you?

As a teacher, when I think of my immediate role towards equity in the classroom, one aspect is that every student should have an entry point in the activities that we are doing. For example, a lot of times I’ll carry around back pocket questions, which are designed to give students who struggle an entry point into the curriculum without feeling lost. This ensures that every student has access to a really engaging curriculum with high standards across the board while providing students who struggle a way to enter into those harder and more rigorous critical thinking activities.

I think student voice is also very important, so I try to do activities that give students an opportunity to express their thinking about something before we go into a new unit. For example, asking kids what they think about electricity or what their experience has been with it. Exposing them to real hands on activities and letting them think about the process, rather than just giving them worksheets and trying to lead them to the one correct answer. Actually helping them to discover things and express their own feelings and ideas about things.

A student reaches for a top shelf while in a wheelchair

How do we make sure that students and teachers have a real voice in the issues that matter to them?

I like to go off the idea of giving students the ability to express their own thinking. I don’t just want them to give me the answer that they think is the right answer, I want to truly know their ideas about things and what they think. So the first thing we need to do in the classroom is to create that space – to know that it’s okay to really say what they feel and what they think and to explore that.

And it’s not just in the classroom, but also in the relationship between me as a teacher and my students. I think the most important thing I can do as a teacher is give students a voice, just to tell their story. And so I try to be very intentional about forming relationships with my students, and carve specific spaces for students to do that.

As far as teacher voice, that’s one thing I feel less certain about – how to jumpstart that and how to really know where that fits in. That’s something I’m still more curious about – how do I really do that in a way that’s going to be effective?

A student tries to tie their shoe with one arm

This was a great day for us to spend some time with you in your classroom, because you did an activity today showing how students have varying needs. Can you take a moment and tell us a little bit about the activity today, and the intent behind it?

One of our standards that we covered earlier in the year was assistive versus adaptive technologies, and how these technologies help support people who have certain needs. Today we did an activity where students got to experience using different assistive technologies. One of the examples was simulating the loss of an arm, so they had to do different activities with one arm like zipping a zipper and writing their name. Then they would rate how hard the activities were on a scale of one to five.

Another activity was vision impairment, so students had to practice pouring a glass of water with special glasses that made their vision blurry, or practice reading braille without being able to use their eyesight. We had wheelchairs and crutches to simulate those disabilities with students as well.

The goal of the activity was to not only learn why we have assistive technologies or how they can help, but really to put them in the shoes of the people who have to use these technologies, to make them more empathetic toward people who are using these technologies, and further their understanding and their perspective.

Students use a mirror to simulate what it might be like to have dyslexia

Thank you for modeling empathy both for your students and our community.

You’re welcome. And I’m excited to learn more about exploring these issues on the inequities in our school system, and how I as a teacher can help.


Editor’s note: The interview transcript was lightly edited for clarity.

Learn more about Project Inspire

Project Inspire: Changing Education for Good

We all know that the single most important factor in children’s success in school is having a great teacher at the helm of their classroom. That’s why Project Inspire draws diverse candidates into the teaching profession and arms them with the tools to help change lives in our local schools!

Project Inspire, a program of the Public Education Foundation, takes people from a variety of professional backgrounds outside of education who have a desire to teachand readies them for a career in the classroom. The two-year program includes a course of study as well as extensive classroom experience with a mentor teacher, and culminates in a Master’s degree in education and a placement in a local school.

We recently featured three stories of residents on YouTube and other social media outlets. We’re sharing their stories to highlight the exciting results the program achieves and to underscore the impact a well-equipped teacher can have on ensuring a great education for every child in our community.

School Board Meeting Recording

Please watch the meeting by clicking the “play” button on the video below!

APEX Action Teams Update

The APEX Action Teams have been hard at work in our community in the past four months. The purpose of each group is to build implementation plans for community-driven initiatives and projects that support the equity goals detailed in the APEX Project Report.

Each of the five APEX Action Teams has met three times so far. Their meetings occur every six weeks with small group meetings in between each regularly scheduled session if needed.

Each group was presented with two focus areas determined by community feedback during the listening phase of the APEX Project. They have gone through facilitated discussions that provided a historical context to the work in order to inform their decision making process when narrowing their focus areas.

Along with identifying an issues focus, each team has begun to focus their ideas for equity initiatives that will accomplish their issue area’s goals.

In the remaining months of 2018, each team will build out a detailed work scope and implementation plan for their initiatives, which range from community-level organizing efforts to collaboration with HCDE to partnerships with existing programs in schools.

Eager to learn more? Click for an update on the progress of each group.

Supporting the whole child >

Supporting the people in our schools >

Racial & socioeconomic desegregation >

Funding & Budgeting >

Community Engagement & Empowerment >

There is still time to get involved in one or all of these groups — Sign up here!

August 2018 Schoolboard Watch Blog

In this edition of UnifiEd’s School Board Watch Blog, we will take a look at the agenda for the August 16th, 2018 regularly scheduled session of the Hamilton County School Board Meeting. The meeting will be held in the Hamilton County School Board Meeting Room at 3074 Hickory Valley Road and is set to begin at 5:30 p.m. The meeting will be livestreamed by HCDE through their Facebook page and the recording will be posted here on the UnifiEd blog afterwards.

View the full agenda and supporting documents >

Hot Topics:

  • Board Policy 4.601 Grading System- First Reading: This updates the current grading policy to reflect percentage of TCAP in student grades for both 3-8 and high school at 15% of the student’s grade. If TCAP raw scores are not received before the last day of school, the results will not be included in student grades.
  • Board Policy 5.114 Personnel Records-First Reading: This updates the current personnel records policy to include a clause stating that no administrator or supervisor may offer an employment reference or a letter of recommendation for any employee or former employee of HCDE unless he or she directly supervised the employee or former employee within the preceding 12 months.
  • Board Policy 6.309 Zero Tolerance Offenses- First Reading: This updates the current zero tolerance offense policy adding in language that states any student who “commits aggravated assault or commits an assault that results in physical contact with any teacher, principal, administrator, any other employee of the school, or school resource officer, shall be expelled for a period of not less than one calendar year.” The director of schools can modify this expulsion requirement on a case-by-case basis.
  • Board Policy 5.1061 Criminal Records Check- Second Reading: New language has been added to the current policy requiring background checks for volunteers and contractors, as well as updated background checks every five years for current employees, applications, and new employees undergoing initial criminal record checks.
  • Board Policy 5.502 Harassment/Sexual Harassment and Discrimination- Second Reading: This updates the current “investigation and recommendation” section of harassment, sexual harassment, and discrimination policy. The new policy language prohibits the school system entering into, or requiring a complainant to enter into, non-disclosure agreements during or before a settlement for sexual misconduct, harassment, or assault.
  • Board Policy 6.200 Attendance- Second Reading: This policy adds language requiring LEA to adopt progressive truancy interventions for students who are identified as habitually absent. These interventions include conferencing and meetings with parents, referral to a social Social Worker or Trancy Officer, a needs assessment meeting with a student and their family, and, as a final measure, a meeting with the Truancy Board. Truancy Board meetings will occur if a student has 8 or more unexcused absences and did not respond to other interventions. If a parent or guardian does not attend the Truancy Board meeting or the student does not improve in their attendance, the Truancy Board will refer the student to the Juvenile Judge.
  • Board Policy 6.602 Student Records Inspections and Correction Procedures- Second Reading: This policy outlines procedures for parents and students to inspect a student’s educational records and, if needed, submit a correction to their transcript.  Student transcript alterations may only be made when the change is supported by documentation providing an explanation of the reason for the transcript alteration and evidence that the student has earned the grade reflected in the altered transcript.

Recognitions, Presentations, and Delegations:

  • The Director of JROTC will recognize the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners of the JROTC marching competition, during last May’s Annual Armed Forces Parade. There will be a presentation of plaques provided by the Chattanooga Area Veterans Council (CAVC).
  • Superintendent, Dr. Bryan Johnson, will recognize board members David Testerman and Joe Galloway as they leave the School Board to pursue other opportunities. He, along with fellow board members, will share their accomplishments and words of appreciation for serving the students of Hamilton County Schools.
  • The Chief of Operations will present the report of Readiness and Safety which will give  updates to the departments of School Age Child Care, Auxiliary Services, Transportation, Child Nutrition, Information Technology, and School Security.

Field Trips:

  • Red Bank High School will send students enrolled in JROTC to participate in the Raider
  • Invitational Meet Team Competitions.
  • The East Ridge High School volleyball team will attend camp.
  • The Soddy Daisy High School cheerleading team will attend camp.


Board approval is sought for:

  • The contract to furnish food supplies to Brainerd High School Bistro Restaurant totalling $20,190.48 with funds to be provided by the Brainerd High School Internal Funds.
  • The contract for locker projects with funds to be provided by the Maintenance Budget & Capital Projects Fund.
  • The purchase of Freon for the Maintenance Department totalling $33,500.00 with funds to be provided by Maintenance Budget.
  • The contract with Stellar Therapy for the provision of speech and language services to Private and Homeschool students. This contract is for the private school proportional services plan paid for from the IDEA, Part B Grant, IDEA, Preschool Grant, and IDEA Carry Over Amount not to exceed $441,118.00.
  • The first amendments to the Signal Centers Adult Services and Special Education Services Contracts. These amendments are needed to address the isolation and restraint requirements that is mandated by the State Department. No additional funds are needed or requested for this amendment; current; Exceptional Education General Purpose Funds will be used.
  • The purchase Tennessee ACT Vouchers for all eleventh grade students. This purchase order is for $123,480.00. The State provides funding for the ACT exams through BEP Funds.
  • The contract with We R CPR making them the sole source provider for the certification cards for the American Heart Association BLS Instructors for HCDE for the August trainings.
  • The addition to Snow Hill Elementary School totalling $923,511.00 from with funding to be provided from capital funds.
  • The purchase of motor fuel for the month of July totalling $34,864.00 with funds provided by the Warehouse Inventory Fund.  

Additional approval is sought for:

  • The continuation of Reading Eggs, a literacy support program solely distributed by Edmentum, Inc. This program, in cooperation with the local United Way Agency, enhances literacy support for grades PreK through fifth grade and is available to all students enrolled in one of our Hamilton County Schools PreK – 5. Students have access to the program both during and after school. This program totals $316,500.00 for a three-year agreement. A yearly payment of $105,500 would be required each year of the agreement.
  • The contract between HCDE and STARS to provide training and guidance to strengthen the school learning community through student training, peer mediation, early intervention student support, individual school support, and the Kindness Matters Campaign. This contract request is contingent upon approval of the Safe Schools Grant as submitted to the Tennessee Department of Education.
  • The renewal of the fixed-term license for Rosetta Stone, a language learning software, to provide course services for up to 1,000 students and on-demand Professional Development during the 2018-2019 fiscal year totalling $89,099.00 ($89.00 per pupil). The funds will be provided by Title III federal budget.
  • The contract between On Point and Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Middle, and Brainerd High for REACH (Rapport, Emotion, Academic, Character, Health) to Achieve programming oversight, enrichment, and support. This project will address student and family needs ranging from academic support to mental and emotional health. Students will be served with tutoring, mentoring, and enrichment activities selected by administrators and students for optimal engagement. The total requested is $74,993.28 with funds to come out of the Fiscal year 2019 21st Century Learning Community Centers (CLCC) Federal grant.
  • The contract with New Classroom Innovation Partners, Inc. for the purchase of “Teach to One: Math”, a program for math instruction using personalized, blended learning to be used at Brainerd High School. The total amount requested is $100,000.00, which will be funded by the Federal District Priority Schools Grant.

Budget Amendments and Grants:

  • Board approval is needed to amend the FY19 General Purpose Operating Budget for the reclassifying of existing budget appropriations between various accounts including:
    • Community Involvement Employees and Benefits
    • Chief Equity Office Employees and Benefits
    • Information Services Contracts and Licenses
    • General Employee Benefits
    • System Wide Elementary Employee Benefits
    • Communication and Development Employee Benefits
  • Board approval is needed for Federal Grants and Self-Funded Programs for FY 2019 for the following budget amendments:
  • The School Improvement Grant, with an increase of $1,100,000.00
  • The 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant (Opportunity Zone Schools—Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Middle, and Calvin Donaldson Elementary), totaling $306,980.00
  • Additional approval is sought for:
    • The acceptance of the HCDE- Safe Schools Act Grant funded by TDOE for $1,164,040.00 to maintain law enforcement presences at Hixson and Orchard Knob Middle Schools, strengthen safety vulnerabilities identified by assessments, provide student training in maintaining a cohesive, safe school environment, support safety staff planning sessions, provide and maintain safety-related and character development resources, staff development, and hire part time staff members to assist with maintaining documentation of safety records.
    • The amendment of the FY18 General Purpose Operating Budget to appropriate the additional revenue totalling $4,569,000.00 from the State July Final BEP memo. The difference in BEP revenue is due primarily to three areas – the addition of an RTI (response to intervention) component, the increase in the ELL formula, and growth. The additional funds are being appropriated for these positions and purposes, and also to allocate funds to Capital Maintenance for capital facilities assessment and safety issues.

Board Matters:

  • Legal Services: A total of $20,000.00 in legal fees was paid in the month of July to Benett & DeCamp, PLLC.


  • September 3: Labor Day Holiday – Schools and Central Office Closed
  • September 20: Board Meeting Quarterly Session