More than three months after Volkswagen announced it would make cars in Chattanooga, officials say they are starting to realize that preparing for the company’s arrival should not be the sole focus of local education.
“We’d be remiss to assume that all of Hamilton County’s future is in that automobile plant,” County Commissioner Warren Mackey said. “Hamilton County will have to prepare students for all jobs.”
A 100-DAY PLAN
Tuesday’s joint meeting of the Hamilton County Commission and the school board was in response to Mayor Claude Ramsey’s challenge for the two groups to create a 100-day education plan preparing for Volkswagen’s arrival. The mayor said in August the focus should be on improving school attendance and preparing students for the work force. Mayor Ramsey, who is in Germany visiting VW’s headquarters, did not attend the meeting.
Since the announcement this summer, officials repeatedly talked publicly of the need to prepare students for jobs at VW, including school board Chairman Kenny Smith’s insistence on a standalone career and technical high school.
At a joint meeting Tuesday of the Hamilton County Board of Education and the County Commission, schools Superintendent Jim Scales said he had several “A ha!” moments regarding the school system’s future during two recent trips to Greenville, S.C., where a BMW plant was built 16 years ago.
“I saw a bigger picture of what this could potentially mean for Hamilton County and the region,” he said. “Modern industry requires an educated work force — they do not hire the immediate high school graduate.”
Dr. Scales said the average age of an employee at the BMW plant was between 28 and 32, and all had at least a high school diploma and two years of technical training or a two-year college degree.
It’s going to take more than career academies and career and technical education to make Hamilton County’s graduates attractive employees to VW, agreed Ray Childers, president of the Chattanooga Manufacturers Association, who also spoke at the meeting.
Experience through internships and apprenticeships are key, he said.
While those at the meeting still talked of the importance of career and technical education, several present pointed out that the preparation would not be for VW alone.
More than likely, Hamilton County Schools graduates first would be hired by suppliers that will move into the area with VW’s arrival, said Briggs Smith, director of the school system’s career and technical education department.
“It’s about those tier one, tier two and tier three companies that lead to careers at VW,” he said.
Much of the time left for questions and answers turned into criticism of the school system’s job of educating students.
Commissioner Fred Skillern suggested that students who were not ready to move on received passing grades anyway just to improve the system’s graduation rate. He also cited a statistic that 75 percent of Hamilton County graduates who attended Chattanooga State Technical Community College required remedial math classes.
Dr. Scales said school system administrators now need to “review academic programs” to ensure they are meeting the needs of students. He also said they would look at possibly expanding the Hamilton County Middle College High School at Chattanooga State, which allows students to earn college credit while in high school.
The commission and the school board agreed to meet again to talk about educational opportunities in Hamilton County.
Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...