If Hamilton County schools fail to soar in the years to come, it will not be because school board members are divided.  It will not be because they are disengaged.  It will not be due to a disgruntled superintendent.

It was apparent at their weekend retreat at the Creative Discovery Museum that the school board, which includes four first-year members, and newly hired superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson are on the same page.  There seems to be a unified vision that has been rare since the merger of county and Chattanooga city schools twenty years ago.

Johnson, who celebrated his 35th birthday Friday night at the retreat, exudes a quiet confidence, a ready smile, and an eagerness to learn about his new challenge.  When board members warned him about “outside voices” who want to influence his decisions about school policies, he didn’t flinch. Board member Karitsa Mosley Jones said, “There are too many people who are trying to make our corn bread.  We’ve been burned too many times before.”  Johnson assured board members that while he was listening to numerous parties, no one was exerting any undue influence.

Johnson was hired earlier this year after previously working in his hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee. He constantly reminds board members that while he never planned to be in Hamilton County, now that he is here, he is in it for the long haul.  He makes no secret of the fact he would like to see his youngest child graduate from Hamilton County schools, often using the term “fifteen years from now,” when talking about his possible tenure.  “I was called to be here,” he said. “This was not my plan.”

The superintendent asked each board member, “Why are you here?”  Several became emotional when talking about their reasons for running for a post that pays “about fifteen cents an hour,” in their words.

District by district, here are some excerpts from their responses:

  1. Rhonda Thurman: “To keep an eye on our tax dollars. To give taxpayers a voice. To give parents a voice.  Too often, they are intimidated.  I am not intimidated, I will tell you what I think.  Education is a way out of bondage.  Slaves were not allowed to learn.  It was a way to keep them down.  Some people get mad when I say this, but it’s true.  If you have a talent, whether it’s in your brain, or with your hands, education is a way out of your bondage.
  2. Kathy Lennon:  “To be a voice for the community.  All children should have access to a great education.”
  3. Joe Smith: “I’ve got two grown kids of my own, and we’ve raised nineteen foster kids. I’ve had my own struggles.  I want to share my experience, my strengths and hopes.  A teacher has to be a parent, a nurse, a psychologist, a therapist, and a social worker.  It’s heartbreaking what some of them deal with these days.  God strategically put me here at this stage of my life.  I just want to love on folks.”
  4. Tiffanie Robinson: “I grew up in poverty. My mom had me when she was a teenager. I am a young parent myself. I see too many of my peers opting out of the public school system.  I have been a part of this revival that is going on downtown, and I want to see the same thing happen for Hamilton County schools.”
  5. Karitsa Mosley Jones: “I’m here because I want to be a voice. A voice for kids, and a voice for parents.  They need a voice.”
  6. Joe Galloway: “I retired from teaching, and I miss the interaction with kids. I care about kids.  Sometimes a young person just needs someone to listen, because maybe they figured things out a little later than their friends, and they just need a grown up, a mentor.  I want to be an advocate for them.
  7. Joe Wingate: “Education is important. I’ve been as critical as anyone about our school system. It seems like our school system had given our town a black eye.  I was quick to judge. Now I want to be a part of the solution.”
  8. David Testerman: “My community came to me, and asked me to be an advocate. I want to be a voice for children and teachers.  And I have a particular passion for vocational-technical education.”
  9. Steve Highlander: “It’s a calling. It’s a service. Every child is important.”

Board members and the superintendent discussed a number of hot topics.  Here are some highlights:

On recently released TVAAS scores, which designated Hamilton County with a composite score of “1,” the lowest on the scale:  Dr. Johnson noted that 6th grade math scores countywide are very low, but singled out Loftis Middle School for good scores.  “They’re doing it right,” he said. Science was also a problem, and Johnson promised “a clear focus” on improving weak areas.  Thurman said poor math performance should come as no surprise, as she has complained about the county’s math program for more than a decade.  Many other board members nodded in agreement.

Thurman, who has been on the board since 2000, was long a lone voice, frequently on the short end of 8-1 votes.  It should be noted that most board members, and the superintendent agreed with her on several issues this weekend.  She spoke out against a long-standing practice of preventing teachers who had not been granted tenure at one school, from ever gaining employment at another county school.  She also gained support when criticizing architects who “build monuments to themselves” instead of cost-efficient school buildings, certain central office decisions on grant programs (“We’ve been grant whores for a long time”) and pulling principals out of schools for frequent meetings (“The principal from Sale Creek needs to be in his school, not spending a full day driving from one end of the county to another for yet another meeting”).

Board members said the five “Partnership Zone” schools (Orchard Knob Elementary, Brainerd High, Woodmore Elementary, Dalewood Middle, and Orchard Knob Middle) must be “fixed” as soon as possible, and Dr. Johnson assured them that efforts were ongoing to make that happen.

In addition, “Opportunity Zone” schools (including Barger, Hardy, Howard High, East Lake Elementary and Middle, Donaldson, and Clifton Hills) will be getting extra attention.  Five high schools (Red Bank, East Ridge, Hixson, Tyner and Central) were listed by assistant superintendent Justin Robertson to be in line for additional support.

Robertson also said teachers and principals need to understand state standards, and that assessments must be aligned countywide.  He said in the past, some local schools used assessments that were too easy, while state standards were higher.  He hopes to identify 50-75 master teachers who could share best practices.

Dr. Johnson promised “deep change, cultural change, and structural change.” He commented that programs come and go, but structural change would last forever.

The superintendent also noted some enrollment fluctuations that had occurred since staffing estimates were made last spring, and that a few “involuntary transfers” would have to be made.

Dr. Johnson held nine “listening sessions” in the nine districts last month, and pointed to five topics that came up most often:  career readiness, the arts, community perception, student performance, and stakeholder engagement.  On the last topic, he said, “People want to plug in, they want to help or volunteer, but they don’t know how.”  Several board members blamed the district’s fingerprinting policy, which requires those who come in contact with children to drive to a remote location and pay a $45 fee.  Dr. Johnson and board member Highlander agreed to explore ways to either bring fingerprinting services to individual schools, or research systems that require a driver’s license check-in at each school lobby, and can identify those with criminal histories.

Some board members were critical of the district’s Human Resources Department, suggesting Dr. Johnson “look outside the school system” when hiring employees and directors who are not in school or classroom settings.  “There are people who go to college and specialize in those fields,” said Karitsa Mosley Jones.  “That’s why people say we have a good old boy, or good old girl system.” They also complained about the lack of exit surveys for teachers who leave the school system.  “We have requested that and talked about it for years,” said one board member, “but it never gets done.”  Dr. Johnson agreed that exit surveys should be conducted, “so we can find out why they are leaving.”

Joe Wingate suggested the school system continue to aggressively pursue partnerships with businesses and agencies who want to help.  “Now is a good time.  There are people talking about partnering with us who have never talked about it before.”  Dr. Johnson agreed, and said “I have been all over this county, day and night, it seems like I’ve been everywhere, and that’s a big part of our discussions.”

Joe Smith emphasized the need for a better relationship with the Hamilton County Commission.  “This has got to be a priority,” he said.  “They’re the funding body, and we have to do a better job communicating with them.”  He also said board members must soon prioritize what they would do with some $100 million in new property tax money.

Smith also said the district should improve communicating with the public.  “I see so many good things happening in and out of my district, but the public has no idea.  We need to start celebrating our successes, and let the world know about it.  People don’t even know all the classes we offer at the different schools.  If they did, they would be amazed.”   Dr. Johnson pointed to a current “re-branding” project that is underway with the Johnson Group public relations agency, and students from Ooltewah High School.  “You’re going to see a new website, a new logo, a better way for folks to go to their mobile device and pull up all the information they need.  We’re hard at work on that, and you’ll see the results soon.”

At last Thursday’s regular board meeting, Steve Highlander was elected for another one-year term as board chair, and Karitsa Mosley Jones was re-elected as vice chair.

At the conclusion of the retreat, board members listed their goals for the district, and the headlines they would like to see five years from now.  (Each board member spoke up and contributed, another change from years past, when some seemed content to merely nod their heads.)  Most listed higher test scores, and many listed the district as a destination for prospective teachers.  The overriding theme was stated earlier by Dr. Johnson, whose adopted slogan is “Hamilton County Department of Education: the fastest improving school district in Tennessee.”  He said that is the goal for now, but ultimately he would like to revise it to say, “the highest achieving school district in Tennessee.”

It’s a lofty goal, for sure.  But for the first time in recent memory, the superintendent and each board member seem to be on the same page.