published Sunday, August 3rd, 2014

New Hamilton County high schools grow, one in cyberspace, the other at Chattanooga State

A Signal Mountain teacher works with her students on their tablet computers in this file photo.
A Signal Mountain teacher works with her students on their tablet computers in this file photo.
Emily Crisman

Hamilton County's newest high school has grown — on a community college campus.

And Catoosa County's newest high school is making more room for students -- in cyberspace.

As the new school year gets underway, more area students are getting away from a traditional high school experience.

STEM School Chattanooga, a Hamilton County school on the Chattanooga State Community College campus, will be 17,000 square feet bigger when classes start Thursday.

"We've essentially doubled the size of it," county schools Assistant Superintendent Gary Waters said.

The new high school started two years ago with a ninth grade, added a 10th grade last year, will add an 11th grade this year and a 12th grade next year to become a four-year school. The STEM school has room for only 75 students per grade, he said, and there's a lottery to get in.

"Our original ninth-grade class is now the 11th grade," Waters said.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. There's said to be a shortage of workers with that background, and STEM School Chattanooga aims to produce students with a marketable education.

One way the high school does that is by letting students get college credit while getting their high school diploma.

"Theoretically, a kid can come out of there with a high school diploma and a two-year degree," Waters said.

Chattanooga State also is home to a similar program, Collegiate High, in which students' coursework counts toward their high school diploma and their associate's degree.

"If they do it right, then they could graduate with two years of college under their belt," said Chattanooga State spokeswoman Eva Lewis. "I think the nice thing is that people have these options."

Entrance is competitive for the program, formerly known as Middle College High School.

A promotional video for Collegiate High features Jake Brown, the 17-year-old who built an augmented reality sandbox exhibit that recently went on display in the second-floor children's room at the Chattanooga Public Library downtown.

"They even blow some of our college students out of the water," Lewis said of the Collegiate High students.

Bye-bye to bricks-and-mortar high

Kids no longer need to set foot in a bricks-and-mortar high school in Catoosa County, thanks to the Catoosa Online Academy offered by the Catoosa County Public Schools.

The school district launched the online academy last year as a pilot program, and it has an enrollment of about 120 ninth- through 12th-graders.

School officials expect enrollment will grow to about 185 students this school year. The first day of school is Aug. 18.

About 30 of the 120 students opted to learn strictly online, while the rest take some blend of online and bricks-and-mortar classes, including band. Online Academy students also can participate in extracurricular activities such as prom, said Steve Sawyer, the school district's director of technology.

"We wanted to have ... some flexibility, but we still wanted them to be connected to their high school community," Sawyer said.

The only equipment that online academy students need is a computer and an Internet connection, said the district's virtual learning coordinator, Kyra Rhyne.

State funding for schools is based on attendance. Online academy students are counted just like regular students, a school official said.

"We know when they're studying," Rhyne said. "We are able to watch them."

The online academy should help the district retain students who otherwise would leave for other online high schools, school officials said.

"There are some kids that don't want to go to a bricks-and-mortar building," district spokeswoman Marissa Brower said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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