Staff Photo by Matt Fields-Johnson/Chattanooga Times Free Press Judge Walter Williams, a Howard High School graduate speaks at a news conference at the school Friday responding to pressures from the state of Tennessee to make improvements.
A group of Howard alumni believes state officials and lawmakers rushed the decision to approve sweeping changes to the state's education system.
Those changes include labeling Howard School of Academics and Technology as a "persistently failing school" and targeting it for inclusion in a state-run "Achievement School District."
"We were just amazed ... this was pushed down the throats of the legislators," said former City Court Judge Walter Williams, a 1970 Howard graduate. "We will fight vigilantly against any state takeover or any change in administration at this time."
Mr. Williams' comments came as a group of prominent Howard alumni gathered Friday for a news conference at the school in support of the administration, faculty and students.
The group included state Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, who voted for passage of the First to the Top Act, which was approved in order to improve Tennessee's chances of winning millions in federal Race to the Top funds. The act included the Achievement School District proposal.
Along with 15 states and the District of Columbia, Tennessee now is a finalist to receive the $501 million it requested.
First to the Top was passed during a special session called in January by Gov. Phil Bredesen, and Rep. Favors said Friday she would have preferred to have a couple of months to review the legislation, rather than the several weeks she had.
"I was reluctant initially. I don't like to vote on something without having the time to fully digest it," she said. "It was rushed."
When Gov. Bredesen called the General Assembly into the special legislative session, he acknowledged that "the timing was tight," spokeswoman Lydia Lenker said.
"But, as he put it, 'sometimes the planets just line up and there is an opportunity that you didn't expect,'" she said. "The final guidelines for the Race to the Top application process weren't finalized until late last year, so the state had to act quickly if we were going to be competitive."
Those present at Friday's news conference said the news of Howard's potential takeover came at a time when students are preparing to take state standardized tests, and they now are demoralized.
"Now is not the time to pull the rug out from under them," Mr. Williams said. "The state should be supporting us."
He and other members of the alumni group planned to talk to students at an assembly Monday to encourage them, Mr. Williams said.
Read about community reaction to state involvement at Howard.
Kevin Robinson said his son, Kevin Jr., has been improving his grades lately, along with much of the Howard student body. Students made double-digit gains in math and English achievement last year, and the alumni group said they projected the school's graduation rate would be between 67
percent and 81 percent next year.
The possible takeover of Howard "is just one more thing they will overcome," Mr. Robinson said.
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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, ...