Normal Park Museum Magnet School and its principal, Jill Levine, have racked up honors for years -- JFK School of Distinction, Magnet School of Excellence Award, Magnet School Principal of the Year.
And now, more than a decade after opening Normal Park, Levine will take her local success story national.
She's currently serving as one of three U.S. Department of Education principal ambassador fellows, traveling routinely to Washington offering a principal's perspective on federal education policy.
Next school year Levine will take a sabbatical from Normal Park and will work a year in D.C. as the department's first full-time principal resident.
"I think it's huge," said Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith. "I think Jill has done a great job at Normal Park. I think this speaks to her as an individual, but I think it also speaks to Hamilton County and what we've been able to do in school leadership."
Levine said she plans to return to Normal Park the following year.
Normal Park opened as a magnet school in 2002 in North Chattanooga with the help of a federal magnet school grant. Parents and local businesses have helped with physical upgrades at the school including a full physical makeover of the building. In 2008, the elementary school expanded to the old Chattanooga Middle School building with a $1.5 million makeover of the former Chattanooga Middle campus.
While the school is unquestionably an academic success, critics have attacked Normal Park in recent years on a number of issues, ranging from its zoning and admission procedures to its treatment of special education students. But one of the most common refrains has actually been somewhat of a compliment.
For years critics have asked why the successes of Normal Park and other high-performing schools weren't being replicated across the county. If it worked there, why couldn't it work somewhere else?
"People ask us all the time, 'Why can't every school be like this?'" Levine said in November 2012.
The school system answered some of those concerns a few years ago when it started pushing Normal Park-trained administrators to other schools. In Soddy-Daisy and Red Bank, principals replicate many of the lessons learned at Normal Park.
But Levine's influence will now be felt on an entirely different scale.
Levine said her role in Washington next year will be to bring a principal's approach to federal education policy. She'll meet with principals from across the country, bringing their concerns and ideas on numerous issues to the feds, meaning her work there could potentially affect the 90,000 public school principals across the country.
"What's really great about it is we can literally say what you tell us will be shared with the U.S. secretary of education," Levine said.
"A lot of it is brain candy in the sense that I'm looking at school leadership on a completely different level. I've been a principal for 12 years, but this is very different."
Nationally, policymakers continue to highlight school leadership as a key to good schools. The premise is simple: If you're going to transform schools, it takes strong leaders.
And Hamilton County has in recent years put a strong emphasis on the role of the principal. The Principal Leadership Academy, a partnership among the school system, the Public Education Foundation, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, works to train upcoming principals. And a new Leadership Pipeline unveiled last year is aimed at continually improving school leaders, particularly in their first three years on the job.
Bill Kennedy, director of the Principal Leadership Academy, said Levine's new gig will complement the work already being done here.
"She's going to learn about best practices all over the country," he said. "There have been people trying to learn about those here, but just think that somebody sitting in that chair is able to bring those ideas back directly to our schools in Hamilton County."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.
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 ...