I'm sitting on the gym bleachers with two students during a break in their Wednesday morning wellness class -- the topic was a healthy body mass index -- when I hear the word for the first time.
"Everybody sees it now as The Howard School," said junior Derelle Roshell.
Did you spot it? Check out the sixth word in his quote. It's a tiny word -- three letters -- nudged between "as" and "Howard." Rhymes with pea. And sea. And celebratory.
Not Howard School.
But ... The Howard School.
"It makes a big difference," said sophomore Taneshia Gearing, next to Derelle on the bleachers. "I want to come in and learn and be educated and part of The Howard School."
It is significant that students, teachers, alums and principals have begun attaching this little word -- the -- at the front of their school. Like The Ohio State. Or The President.
"It adds more power to the name," said Roshell, a wise, gregarious teenager whose principals and classmates have fondly nicknamed "Senator," which probably underestimates him.
This may be the most dramatic opening of school in decades for Howard -- sorry -- The Howard School, in years.
The Howard School has been lifted from the Tennessee Department of Education's watch list of low-performing schools. Thursday night, the school was featured in a full-length documentary, "Build Me a World," which premiered at the Tivoli Theatre.
"Kids are coming back from other schools," said school counselor Ismahen Kadrie.
I'd wager the good news will continue this fall, when last year's test scores [already viewed by principals but embargoed from the public eye] are released.
"I can't talk about it," said Principal Paul Smith.
But his smile does.
When Smith arrived at Howard -- "five years, one month and one day ago," he said Wednesday -- he began the renaming process. When calling parents, speaking at meetings, addressing Central Office, he always said "The Howard School."
It was an act of faith.
"At first, folks were laughing," he said.
No longer. It's reached saturation point, where students -- with pride, seriousness -- call their school The Howard School.
Perhaps it's time the rest of us do, too.
Consider Mason West, the teacher who brought the Talented Tenth program to Howard, which the documentary highlights. Taking West's course is like being given a passport. Students envision new programs at Howard; engage in debate tournaments; travel to Jamaica and Washington, D.C., to meet with high-level government officials; and, like last year, propose to officials at Volkswagen the idea of turning Howard into a training site for future VW workers.
While the Talented Tenth still exists, West doesn't live in Chattanooga anymore. He moved.
Howard has halls full of talented educators and administrators; West isn't the only one doing good work. But the loss of West is a tremendous loss for our city. He is one of the most inspiring, wisest educators I've seen in my whole career. We should have steered every resource possible into praising, utilizing and promoting him.
Let's learn from the loss of West. Let's invest in -- not ignore -- the future of this school.
Smith's vision has three parts: increase Howard's vocational training, turn the school into a K-12 program and build a 21st century stadium -- with track -- in the empty lot adjacent to the school. He's got miles of data and plenty of pedagogical experience and stats to back up his plan to really make Howard into a downtown school for the new century.
Plenty of deserved attention has been given to other schools in the county. We've hired architects, built buildings, funded additions. On Signal Mountain. In East Brainerd. In North Chattanooga.
Now is the time to invest in The Howard School.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...