Brainerd High School principal Uras Agee and assistant principal Jacqueline Cothran hold regular meetings with their leadership team and teachers, tracking the progress of every Brainerd student.  

The meetings are held in their "war room," featuring walls filled with data. They say the numbers show they're headed in the right direction.

Agee said, "Our graduation rate is just under 70 percent, the highest it's been in years at Brainerd." It's part of a multi-year effort to get Brainerd off the state's priority list, which includes schools in the bottom five percent in academic test scores.

But there's another list Brainerd is also dealing with.   A leading researcher says Brainerd, and Howard School have no students prepared to succeed in college, because they did not meet benchmarks for proficiency in all four ACT subject areas: English, math, reading and science. 

The benchmark scores are: English 18, Math 22, Reading 22, and Science 23.  According to ACT, if all goals are reached, a student has a 75 percent chance of earning a "C" or better in first-year college courses in those subject areas, or a 50 percent chance of earning a "B" or better.

That information can be found online on the State Report Card.   The researcher, Dr. Ken Chilton of Tennessee State University, said he didn't intend to insult anyone, he's just using data to point out Hamilton County's extensive "racial learning gap."

Chilton said, "There are students at Brainerd and Howard who are college-ready in English and math, but according to the data, none are ready in all four subject areas."

Hamilton County superintendent Rick Smith admits there inequities, but says the county and state have been working to close the learning gap for several years. 

He says the numbers don't tell the whole story, of whether a diploma from one school is superior to another.  Smith said, "Do I think it rises to the level of this kid can go to college, and this kid can't?  No I don't believe that."

A closer look at the numbers shows that if you consider college-ready being proficient in all four major subjects, many schools have trouble reaching that goal. Hamilton county has several other schools under ten percent.   The top ranking school is Signal Mountain, with 41 percent.  

Center for Creative Arts is at 36 percent, Collegiate High at Chatt State is at 33 percent, CSAS is at 27 percent, East Hamilton is at 22 percent, Soddy-Daisy is at 19 percent, Ooltewah 15 percent, Lookout Valley and Hixson 11 percent, Sale Creek 10 percent, Central 7 percent, East Ridge and Red Bank 6 percent, Ivy Academy 3 percent, Sequoyah 2 percent, Tyner 1 percent, and Brainerd and Howard at zero. The US average is 26 percent, the state average is 16 percent, and Hamilton County's average is 14 percent.

Opinions differ on the importance of act college readiness numbers.   Superintendent Smith admits those numbers tell an important part of the story
He said, "It's my hope that at some point, every kid gets a quality education, but we're not there yet."

Chilton said the numbers can be interpreted many different ways, but school officials, and community members shouldn't overlook what he calls some obvious needs. "In some of the schools if you look at the composite  scores, they are at 10-15 percentile nationwide.   That means 85-90 percent of students nationwide score higher  than the student average at that school."

But in the Brainerd High "war room," teachers are still stung by the zero percent college-ready tag.   They say such publicity creates a stigma that's hard to remove.  Priincipal Agee  said, "I would like for the public to get more involved, instead of believing one article from someone, come see what we're doing.  There are some great things being done in Hamilton County, and some extraordinary things gooing on at Brainerd High School."  

Assistant principal Cothran adds that, "While the ACT numbers on the state website are accurate, they reflect only a student's first attempt at the test.  They can re-take the test, and receive after-school and summer help in strengthening their weakest subjects."  

Howard High principal Zac Brown also touted a Chattanooga State program called SAILS (Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support) that fills the gap between high school and college readiness.