CHATTANOOGA (Times Free Press) - Fresh from a four-year stint on the local school board, Kenny Smith is exploring the possibility of opening a career and technical charter high school.

For years, the apprenticeship coordinator of the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and former Hamilton County Board of Education chairman has preached the gospel of vocational education in public schools, making little headway.

Now, after an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the Hamilton County Commission, Smith says he's been approached by a group of people interested in starting a career and technical charter high school on the campus of Chattanooga State Community College.

Along with his team -- whose members, for now, want to remain anonymous, he said -- Smith is looking into the feasibility and requirements of starting such a school. He also plans to meet with school board members individually to see whether they would support the idea.

"This may be a quicker way to get a stand-alone [high school]," he said. "I think it's past time; a lot of students are falling through the cracks."

Smith's idea comes after years of declining emphasis on career and technical education in Hamilton County Schools. He and his supporters believe that with manufacturing companies such as Volkswagen, Alstom and Wacker coming to the area, now is the time to improve the area's vocational education.

And Chattanooga State President Jim Catanzaro has just the place for it.

He has visions of building the career and tech school on his campus, adjacent to the current technology center.

Some students would take only high school classes, but others would have access to some of the college's equipment and could do college-level work, he said. In Catanzaro's mind, attending the school would be a perfect steppingstone for admission into Chattanooga State.

A career and tech high school wouldn't be a substitute for college, he said.

"Almost every occupation now that is a technology-based occupation requires a higher level of math, of computer capability, a higher level of problem solving than generally would have been true a decade ago, or a generation ago," he said. "That's just simply because in the world of industry, what's required to work in a [Volkswagen] plant is significantly more demanding than what was required in a GM plant 20 years ago."

Smith, who holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said he still believes graduates of a career and technical high school can be successful without a college degree, but that it's hard for many in the community to come to terms with that.

After attending Chattanooga State for one year, Smith's own son, Casey, told his family he wanted to quit school and go straight into an electrical apprenticeship program.

"Here I've been preaching [vocational education] for 10 years, and I'm thinking, 'My own boy doesn't want to go to college?'"

Though it was initially a hard pill for Smith to swallow, he says his son has been a successful electrician for 10 years, and wouldn't have it any other way.

"I can understand parents who have a strong pull for college ... but what kind of fool would I be to force [my son] to do something else, when he's doing what he wants to do?"

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