published Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

Hamilton County Schools begin hunt for STEM leader

Hamilton County Department of Education Superintendent Rick Smith, left, speaks with school board Chairman Mike Evatt after a news conference Tuesday at Chattanooga State about the Southeast Tennessee STEM Initiative.
Hamilton County Department of Education Superintendent Rick Smith, left, speaks with school board Chairman Mike Evatt after a news conference Tuesday at Chattanooga State about the Southeast Tennessee STEM Initiative.
Photo by John Rawlston.

BY THE NUMBERS

$1 million -- Grant money for STEM school

$850,000 -- Grant money for STEM hub

$650,000-$750,000 -- Estimated cost to renovate space at Chattanooga State Community College

17,000 -- Square footage of classroom and lab space

3 -- Number of months to complete renovation

75 -- Number of ninth-graders expected to begin in fall

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Before teachers are selected for a new science, technology, engineering and math high school, Hamilton County Schools officials say they'll focus on finding a dynamic principal.

"We've got to find that right leader," Superintendent Rick Smith said. "That right leader is going to attract good teachers."

Local business, school and community leaders held a news conference Tuesday on the site of the new school at Chattanooga State Community College.

Gov. Bill Haslam announced Monday that Hamilton County received $1.85 million in a state grant to open a new STEM school and an associated hub to house business and community partners.

Funded by part of Tennessee's $500 million federal Race to the Top award, the STEM school is meant to better prepare students for future jobs. Officials say prospective employers often cite the lack of skilled workers as an impediment to expanding or relocating businesses in the region.

"Our future depends on having a qualified workforce," said Tim Spires, president of the Chattanooga Manufacturers Association.

Smith envisions a school that incorporates the latest technology and integrates internships, virtual classes and college and university coursework under one roof. Project-based coursework would infuse teamwork and problem-solving into daily activities, he said.

"We want to reinvent the way we look at high school learning," Smith said.

Those in attendance Tuesday broke ground in the empty space with an honorary swing of sledge hammers through drywall in the former Olan Mills building adjacent to Chattanooga State's main campus.

The school system will spend about $750,000 to renovate the 75,000-square-foot space. Once contracts are finalized, demolition and construction work should begin in about two weeks and be finished by the end of July, said Gary Waters, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services.

Repurposing the space shouldn't be too complicated, he said. Except for an enclosed science lab and offices, the space will be mostly open and versatile, Waters said.

"It's not particularly complex. It's more of an open plan," he said.

At full capacity, about 300 students will be admitted to the STEM school, with 75 starting each year, including 75 ninth-graders this fall.

Smith said the school system will allot each county high school a number of STEM slots, depending on each school's size. Applications will go out this week to interested eighth-graders. If there's more interest than space -- a likely prospect -- the system will use a lottery to fill slots, officials have said.

"I'm getting calls every day from parents," Smith said.

Simply dubbed the STEM School for now, administrators will allow students and faculty members to come up with their own name for the new school, said Robert Sharpe, assistant superintendent of secondary education.

To reel in the state grant money, local officials had to show cooperation between K-12 education, higher education, businesses and the nonprofit community. Those groups will come together in Hamilton County's STEM hub, which will be run by the Public Education Foundation.

The hub will extend the reach of the school by working with schools and school systems throughout the region, said Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation. It will align business needs with teaching and provide professional development to teachers throughout the area, he said.

"The hub's job is to be an advocate for all kids, all schools around STEM education," he said. "Ultimately, the hub will help dozens of teachers, hundreds of schools and thousands of students."

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about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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