Thursday night was a packed house at Nolan Elementary on Signal Mountain, for the much-anticipated meeting between Hamilton County and the Signal Mountain Town officials. Chattanoogan writer, Roy Exum, had made glowing assurances about the meeting, claiming “all doubt, rumor and fear will be laid to rest when the Signal Mountain Town Council, the Hamilton County School Board, and county school representatives collectively present the entire community with the most brilliant suggestion any parent, student, taxpayer or American could ever dream.”
Granted, there were moments of enthusiasm and praise on both sides throughout, and while I came away feeling encouraged by the strong direction HCDE leadership is heading, it was difficult to ignore the choice of topics at times by Signal Mountain officials.
HCDE Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson detailed not only his goal for our county schools in achieving improvements (turns out not a few are already in the works), but also his unequivocal desire to see Signal Mountain schools remain a part of HCDE. This meeting was the beginning of the next step for his “Listening Tour,” which is talking to elected officials in each area of the county.
District 2 School Board Representative Kathy Lennon expressed excitement regarding the new Advisory Committee for District 2, which begins its inaugural week Jan. 29. Other representatives on the School Board have similar initiatives in place, and it’s clear that Dr Johnson’s influence regarding listening to residents is inspiring action. District 2 residents are welcome to contact Ms. Lennon directly for more information (email@example.com).
But it was Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley who shared one aspect of what I imagine was Mr. Exum’s “most brilliant suggestion” and it turns out it was Dr. Johnson’s (or maybe it was Mr. Howley’s — he jokingly said he thought of it too) idea for “cluster schools”; unfortunately, this grand idea wasn’t fully explained to those of us in the audience.
One could infer it’s an outgrowth of the “Opportunity Zone” schools, which was initiated by Dr. Johnson shortly after he was hired. It seemed as if Signal Mountain is to become its own cluster, a boon to those wanting to split from HCDE, “because each individual school — like each individual child — has different needs,” said Mayor Howley.
The mayor also was clearly encouraged by his previous meetings with the new superintendent, and referenced finding efficiencies in the system: taking resources and putting those towards needs like Art and STEM.
And when asked exactly what precipitated the desire to split, Mayor Howley listed a variety of incidents, including the town having to pay 25 percent of the building of SMMHS, providing funds for 13 staff positions in the three schools, and a concern that these donated funds would eventually not be enough. Mr. Howley praised Signal Mountain residents for their willingness to be involved and donate, not only on the mountain, but said despite willingness to help other schools, “we don’t want our kids to go without.”
Councilperson Amy Speek also had some concerns to share, including a perceived drop in enrollment at SMMHS. She explained that 25-30 percent of families send their children to schools off the mountain after elementary school. “And there goes MEF donations from those parents,” she said. In addition, she expressed frustration over having to pay $800 in school fees for her four children, as well as concerns for safety regarding the lack of a secondary entrance/exit at SMMHS and Nolan.
Kathy Lennon explained that SMMHS was at 90 percent capacity (so any drop in enrollment has been balanced by an influx of new residents moving to Signal Mountain). This response led Ms. Speek to ask what the county plans to do with unincorporated students once the school does reach full capacity, She asked if HCDE would build a separate school or rezone Walden and UHC children.
Dr. Lee McDade, assistant superintendent, responded clearly that the county would build an addition onto the existing school should the need arise. When questioned further, he said that families on the back side who use Roberts Mill Road daily would have the option to enroll their children in county schools off the mountain, should they desire, but that the buses would bring them to Signal Mountain schools.
Dr. Bryan Johnson addressed Ms .Speek’s concerns about the entrance/exit issue (which I find a very valid concern and am pleased that the issue I spoke about at the SMTC meeting in November, 2014 is finally being addressed). Local resident Kim Fookes is heading up the research into options and viability for a second in/egress.
Several county officials spoke to increased need for Arts and STEM classes and instructors across the county, and addressed concerns about past issues like high turnover rate for principals at SMMHS, and funding issues.
Dr. Johnson spoke of leadership training, which has already been happening at HCDE, for principals and vice-principals. “We desire continuity,” said Dr. Johnson, “but in any district of any size, there’s always change.”
And the change he talked about was encouraging, to me.
Ms. Lennon made an excellent point regarding some of these changes: they haven’t been communicated well to the community, and that, too, needs to change. Dr. Johnson gave a nod early on to Mr. Tim Hensley, the new Communications Director at HCDE. It was heartening to hear our School Board representative taking ownership of issues, and I am hopeful communication will improve everywhere it’s needed.
At one point there was a shift in the conversation. It might’ve been the promised moment Mr. Exum’s readers had been waiting for . . . except it wasn’t.
Mayor Howley asked all the county officials if they’d read the SSVC report. Now this was a very fair question, I thought, and while there wasn’t a smooth segue into the topic change, it wasn’t entirely unexpected.
The followup question, however, was unexpected.
Mayor Howley asked HCDE officials if they would identify three things they disagreed with in the report, or three things SSVC had gotten wrong.
There was an awkward pause. I’m not sure the county people quite knew how to respond to that. And it felt as if the Mayor was waiting on some specific response. I have no idea what that response was, but Dr. Johnson pointed out the original purpose of the report was to determine if it was possible to separate from HCDE, and while the report may contain usable information, that was not the reason for this meeting.
And then he said, “We haven’t talked about the children yet.”
BOOM! There it is! That’s the great idea! Right there.
Let’s talk about the children and learning, and actual ways to improve academics and education in our schools.
Dr. Bryan Johnson, our new Superintendent, said if the intent of the SSVC report shifts from “Can we separate?” to “How can we improve education?” then let’s have THAT conversation.
And I would love to be in the room when it happens, because it’s gonna be good. Because all these proponents and opponents? Sorry, Mr. Exum, but they aren’t superheroes or supervillians. They are people in our community. They are parents. They are grandparents. They are neighbors.
They are caring, involved individuals who recognize issues and want to help fix them. They just happen to have disagreed on the best way to accomplish that.
So yes, let’s sit down and have THAT conversation. Let’s move past this interesting yet distracting proposal and let our teachers teach. Let our leaders lead. Let our students succeed.
And let’s help make THAT happen. Together.
Signal Mountain, Tn.