CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) - New Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith knows he has his work cut out for him. One of his first tasks is to narrow the education gap between the district's high-performing and low-performing schools, and there's no magic bullet.

A few schools in affluent neighborhoods have some of the highest achievement test scores in the state. But at the other end of the spectrum, schools in poor, inner-city neighborhoods continue to struggle despite modest gains in recent years.

The income gap certainly plays a role, according to Smith. Well-heeled children enroll in kindergarten with a head start in reading and language skills, while poor children often have little or no training at home to prepare them for the rigors of school. But the disparity doesn't end there. "We have a problem recruiting and retaining good teachers at the schools that need them the most," says Smith. Adding insult to injury, the district's percentage of African-American teachers, now at 9 percent is nowhere close to the percentage of African-American students (31 percent).

"A TEACHER WHO LOOKS LIKE THEM"

"Students need to see a teacher who looks like them," says Kennisha Cann, 2nd grade teacher at Clifton Hills Elementary. With seven years of classroom experience, Ms. Cann is already among the senior faculty members at her school. That, she says, is part of the problem. Ms. Cann, who is African-American, says, "I can't tell you how many young African-American teachers and student teachers we've had come and go here in seven years. They either get promoted to a better position, leave town for a higher-paying job, or they're just not prepared to teach in an inner-city environment. They can't handle it. They haven't been trained properly, and there are not enough experienced mentors to go around."

Statistics provided by the Hamilton County Department of Education tell the story. Only three predominantly black schools have a majority of black faculty members: Howard High at 58 percent, East Lake Academy at 57 percent, and Woodmore Elementary with 54 percent.

Calvin Donaldson Elementary is one of the more glaring examples of the diversity gap. 95 percent of the school's students are black. However, only 2 of the school's 23 teachers are black; the rest are white. Normal Park Upper and Lower schools have only one black faculty member, even though 28 percent of the Upper school's students are black. Hunter Middle School has 125 black students, but not a single black faculty member.

A LACK OF QUALIFIED APPLICANTS

Most principals are reluctant to be quoted on the diversity gap issue, but privately say they deal with two obstacles when attempting to hire and keep black teachers. One is simply a lack of qualified applicants. "I might get 300 applications during a year's time," one principal says, "but I'll be lucky if there's one African-American applicant in that stack."

The other obstacle is addressed by Superintendent Smith. "We don't get that many minority teacher applications to begin with, and quite frankly, we're always on the lookout for good minority candidates for leadership positions. We need African-American administrators, and some of the best teachers are usually identified and put on the fast track from the classroom to an assistant principalship or a lead teacher position."

One of those lead teachers is Theresa Custer, a 33-year veteran of Clifton Hills who now splits her time between that school and nearby Woodmore Elementary. "We've got to start training and preparing young black students for the teaching profession. If you're trying to convince them in college, it's too late. We've got to start encouraging them in middle school and high school."

HAMILTON COUNTY LOSES THE SALARY BATTLE

Money, as usual, is at the root of this discussion. Hamilton County is being outbid at the recruiting fairs throughout the Southeast. A starting teacher with a Bachelors degree will make $34,198 in Hamilton County. Compare that with $36,144 in Huntsville, Alabama or $43, 231 in Atlanta.

Adding to the new superintendent's learning gap challenge is the sharp difference in experienced teachers from schools at opposite ends of the test score charts. The recipe seems simple enough: mix a caring environment with supportive parents and enthusiastic students, and teachers are content to spend their entire career in one school. The results speak for themselves.

PROOF IS IN THE NUMBERS

Three of the elementary schools with the highest test scores in the county are also the top 3 in teacher experience. The average tenure at Falling Water Elementary is 19.3 years per teacher. Alpine Crest is next at 16.6 years, and Nolan Elementary is close behind at 15.9 years. Wallace A. Smith Elementary averages 15.4 years, Westview and East Brainerd are at 15 years, Snow Hill 14.9, Daisy 14.5 and McConnell 14.3.  (The top high school is Soddy-Daisy at 17 years, and the top middle school is Loftis at 16.5 years).

On the other side of the list three schools that have struggled academically are among those with the least experienced teachers. Orchard Knob Elementary's faculty averages only 5.2 years of experience (principal LaFrederick Thirkill declined to be interviewed for this story). Clifton Hills teachers have 6 years, and East Lake Elementary's faculty averages 6.5 years. 

Smith says such schools would benefit significantly from stability in the classroom, and says his staff is constantly brainstorming to find ways to make that happen. "Teachers who stay in one place get to know the child, the family, the younger brothers and sisters, and the community. There's something special about a mom bringing a child into classroom for the first time, and recognizing the teacher from a generation ago."

THE FALLING WATER SUCCESS STORY

That's exactly the environment that has been created at Falling Water, where many teachers have spent most of their lives in the 100-year-old building, located between Red Bank and Soddy-Daisy. Gina Phillips teaches in the same classroom in which she studied as a fourth grader. She's in her 20th year, and some of her colleagues still consider her "one of the new kids."

Falling Water principal Lea Ann Burk, in her first year at the school, says "I've never had a faculty like this. I can see why they want to stay. On my first day here, parents were bringing me gifts and food from their garden. This is a true community school, it's very reminiscent of times past."

NORMAL PARK: YOUTH CAN BE A PLUS

But one high-scoring school does not struggle with the experience gap. Normal Park Lower School has some of the district's best achievement scores, and has the lowest average teaching experience in the county at just 5.1 years. Principal Jill Levine says youth, enthusiasm and a willingness to teach a demanding curriculum is working well in her school. "I think teachers really hit their stride at three to five years. There's no burnout. I actually think that's a plus for us," she said.

RICK SMITH: LOOKING FOR ANSWERS

In order to narrow the learning gap, Smith knows that many of the lower-performing schools will require more of his attention in the years ahead. "We've got to consider incentives and put extra effort into keeping good teachers into these schools. Too many of them put in for transfers as soon as they've served their time, so to speak, and we've got to look at why they want to leave, and what it will take to change their minds."