Bria Sibley’s life has come full circle.

She’s about to step onto the stage of Orchard Knob Middle School—the same stage she walked across to graduate years earlier. Now, she’s an elementary school teacher and, in a few minutes will be addressing a large crowd of her peers at Chattanooga’s first Urban Education Institute, a conference for educators employed in the “Opportunity Zone,” a group of 12 struggling schools in Hamilton County. 

Sibley takes a few deep breaths and begins telling her story to the audience.

“I am a proud product of four Opportunity Zone schools. To be honest, it took me a while to have the confidence to say that,” she said. “When someone would ask what school I attended and I replied, I always got a funny look. You all know that funny look.”

“From a young age I didn’t understand what was wrong with my schools. I didn’t know my schools weren’t good enough,” she continued. “They were okay to me and my friends. They were all that we had.”

Established in 2017 by Hamilton County Department of Education Superintendent Bryan Johnson, the Opportunity Zone task force has several goals: recruiting and retaining talented teachers, providing coaching and support for school principals, focusing on high-quality, consistent literacy and math instruction and increasing engagement with parents and the community.

As part of the initiative, the Urban Education Institute was created to empower educators at the schools in the Opportunity Zone to create meaningful opportunities and positive relationships between students, families and our communities. The inaugural event, co-sponsored by UTC, was attended by more than 500 people.

After graduating with an education degree from UTC in 2012, Sibley returned to the Opportunity Zone to teach at Orchard Knob Elementary School.

“I want to be an example to my students that there is a braveness within each of them. And that they too are able to prevail regardless of their parent or environment,” she said. “An example to my teachers, that with their love, their patience, their understanding., I’m living proof that it pays off.”

After more than five years in a classroom, Sibley knows about challenges she and her fellow teachers will face during the new school year.

“We work in the most unique and challenging schools in Hamilton County. Our teachers must be equipped with patience, empathy and, most important, love. Our students deserve the best teachers in Hamilton County. Teachers that want to be there, that are passionate and vow to give their all to our students daily,” she said.

“As educators, there are many factors that are out of our control, but we must hold on to the things that we can control. The belief that every student deserves an amazing teacher and deserves to be pushed to their fullest potential,” she continued.

Nearing the end of her time on stage, Sibley issued a challenge to her colleagues and to the city of Chattanooga.

“I challenge all that is not a teacher in the Opportunity Zone to come in and walk in our shoes. See how amazing our students are and watch how quickly you fall in love with them just as we have,” she said.

“I challenge you all to rewrite the narrative of these schools,” she continued. “Give them a new life. Believe in them.”


Watch the video from one of the sessions at the Urban Education Insitute. For more on the Opportunity Zone, visit the Hamilton County Schools website.


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