published Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Chattanooga: Closure talk draws mixed reactions


by Kelli Gauthier
Audio clip

21st Century students

Wednesday was a tough day at 21st Century Academy and Howard Middle School.

As administrators began digesting the fact that Hamilton County Schools’ officials had on Tuesday recommended the district close their buildings next year, they grappled with how to fight low teacher morale and a sense of impending doom among students.

  • photo
    Staff Photo by Angela Lewis
    Raven Garrett works in her classroom at 21st Century Academy on Wednesday during U.S. History class. The Hamilton County School board mentioned the school as one of two schools that might be closed because of budget cuts.

No final decision has been made about closing the schools, they kept repeating.

Word first got to Wendy Jung about the possible closing of her school via text message.

The principal of 21st Century Academy didn’t attend the school board’s Finance Committee meeting Tuesday, where administrators suggested closing the K-12 magnet school to help erase a $20 million budget shortfall. She had to rely on second-hand information.

“I got four text messages from my 11th graders, saying, ‘How are we going to proceed?’ ‘What do we do?’” she said. “At first I didn’t know what they were talking about.”

Confirmation came a little later when her husband, who attended the meeting, called to tell her that 21st Century and Howard Middle School were the two buildings Superintendent Jim Scales and Chief Financial Officer Tommy Kranz suggested closing next year.

“This has been a shock to our community today,” she said in her office Wednesday, sifting through letters and pictures composed that morning by students, many begging to keep their school open.

Dr. Scales said he had a personal conversation with Howard’s Executive Principal Paul Smith about the future of his school, but did not talk with Mrs. Jung before Tuesday’s meeting.

“Perhaps that slipped past us,” he said. “We didn’t mention it to her.”

Howard reactions

Although alumni and community volunteers at Tuesday’s board meeting got emotional about the possibility of Howard Middle closing, some school supporters and parents said they are not totally opposed to the idea.

“I want it to close,” said Tara Murphy, the mother of three students attending the school. “The kids are failing and they need help, but (school officials) are suspending them and sending them home.”

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Twelve-year-old Janae’ Dews said she doesn’t feel safe at the school.

“Every time you look around, there is a fight,” she said.

Howard Middle Associate Principal Otto Taylor reiterated that closing his school is only a possibility, but Eddie Holmes, former NAACP president, said closing Howard is “not necessarily a bad thing.”

There are valid concerns about the middle school portion of the building, which has been neglected for so long, he said. Three years ago, Howard Middle reopened in a former elementary school to house students from the former John P. Franklin Middle School, which had closed.

As a result, middle schoolers have been going to school for years in a building not designed for them, he said. The building is filled with small desks, low water fountains and low chalk boards.

“The kids are cramped,” Mr. Holmes said.

Volunteer and former Howard principal the Rev. Lurone “Coach” Jennings Sr. said “you hate to see any school close, but you know there is financial hardship.”

School board member George Ricks, who volunteers daily there, said he will push for certified teachers with tenure to choose where they will be transferred.

Solidarity at 21st Century

Few people spoke up on behalf of 21st Century on Tuesday night when school officials proposed its closure, but on Wednesday morning the marquee outside the school declared solidarity.

“We are a strong community,” the sign read, and Mrs. Jung echoed its sentiment.

More than 100 students are on a waiting list to attend the school next year, she said.

21st Century, built in 1931, has just under 500 students. School capacity is 632 students, according to a report released recently by the school system.

Because of declining enrollment and an old building that is costly to operate, school administrators decided this year to limit the high school’s enrollment and identified its closure as a potential cost savings.

“It just wouldn’t have made sense to bring a lot of students into that school,” Mr. Kranz said. “While this is very painful, the administration felt that this school offered a possible way to not only balance the budget, but look at fixing the financial model of this district.”

But the small size of the school is part of what makes it so special, said 17-year-old junior Daniel Hall, who has attended the school since kindergarten.

“I have a lot of mixed feelings,” he said. “It’s not the building, it’s the memories. It’s going to be awkward if we have to go to another school.”

“Yeah, if they separate us, we’ll be lost without each other,” added classmate Jasmine Burke, 16.

Along with fellow junior Chris Purtee, 18, the students would be forced to return to their zoned schools — in their cases, Brainerd and East Ridge high schools — or attend Tyner Academy for their senior year.

“It was a devastating moment,” Mr. Purtee said.

Sally White, who teaches 11th- and 12th-grade English at the school, said the most worrisome aspect of 21st Century’s potential closure is where her students will go.

“I’ll find something to do, but I’m concerned about the students, especially the juniors,” she said. “It feels a little abrupt.”

School board Chairman Kenny Smith represents 21st Century’s district, and said even though students come from more than 44 different zoned schools, the magnet is “a community within a community.”

“Everybody becomes passionate about their school, and I understand that,” he said. “I don’t think we should close any school out of convenience.”

  • School closings
    Approximately 500 students from 21st Century Academy and 250 from Howard Middle School would have to attend different schools next year if officials approve a plan to close those facilities as a cost-saving measure.
about Kelli Gauthier...

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, ...

about Yolanda Putman...

Yolanda Putman has been a reporter at the Times Free Press for 11 years. She covers housing and previously covered education and crime. Yolanda is a Chattanooga native who has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Alabama State University. She previously worked at the Lima (Ohio) News. She enjoys running, reading and writing and is the mother of one son, Tyreese. She has also ...

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grlatheshow said...

Why would they close a school that has students that want to go there? Isn't there a waiting list of applications to get in? It seems that a positive environment has been created at the school. It says a lot when the majority of the students at 21st Century wrote letters wanting to save their school. I know that the county needs to find $20 million somewhere, but I also know that not every possible solution has been put on the table and been seriously evaluated to save this school.

February 24, 2009 at 11:45 a.m.
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