Cleaveland: Up next for Chattanooga, better schools

Cleaveland: Up next for Chattanooga, better schools

August 25th, 2011 in Life Entertainment

Forty years ago, my family moved to Chattanooga from Nashville. In 1971, Nashville newspapers portrayed our city as fading and smog-bound. Despite naysayers, I was attracted by the opportunity to practice medicine with physicians for whom I had developed respect over years of shared training.

Four decades later, the city and county have enjoyed a true renaissance thanks to ordinary citizens, philanthropists and business and political leaders who shared an dissatisfaction with the status quo. These people had the passion and sustained energy to overcome many roadblocks.

The immediate challenge was to clean our air. Lax regulations and outmoded, manufacturing technologies contributed to air that was often smelly and toxic. Cynics said that Rock City should change its slogan to "See Chattanooga from Rock City." In 1972, after extensive planning, factories deployed new devices to trap airborne pollutants. A joint effort by industrial leaders, environmentalists and the Air Pollution Control Bureau sustained the drive for cleaner air. The struggle, which was often heated, lasted for years. The outcome, clean air, benefits all of us.

Chattanooga's riverfront was desolate in 1971. Visionaries across the political and economic spectrum elicited opinions from thousands of citizens, many of whom committed time, energy, and money to produce a master plan. A coalition of citizens led a transformation that spread from riverfront to the Southside. Careful, stepwise implementation yielded the Walnut Street pedestrian bridge, aquarium and plaza, Coolidge Park, and the Riverwalk which became magnets for new commercial and residential projects.

Residents from earlier years hardly recognize the new Chattanooga upon their return.

Many challenges remain. If ignored, our community will drift sideways for a time before becoming just another metropolitan area with unmet challenges.

Consider public education. There are bright spots within the Hamilton County School District. Local and national foundations have made major commitments to improve school performance, teacher preparation, and counseling for students. Fine new middle-high school buildings serve Signal Mountain and East Hamilton County. Some older structures, such as Normal Park Museum Magnet School, have been transformed by imaginative administrators backed by parents devoted to public education. Test scores and graduation rates are up modestly across the system.

Serious gaps remain, though. Some school buildings are worn out, poorly maintained, and lacking such necessities as up-to-date libraries, labs and computer facilities. Students in these schools are aware of their second-rate facilities. Too many students fall by the wayside, never graduating. Petty politics and finger-pointing displace thoughtful analysis and planning for the future.

What if we set a goal to build the best public school system in the South? What if a coalition similar to those that cleaned our air and renewed our waterfront addressed public education? What if our school board, superintendent, and city and county leaders committed to a new vision for Hamilton County schools?

A renewed school system might feature an imaginative blend of magnet schools, year-round academies, and extended after-school opportunities for all students. Teachers would be given respect for their classroom accomplishments instead of being blamed for circumstances beyond their control. School and public officials would provide yearly progress reports to residents of each school district. Accomplishments would be celebrated; deficiencies would be highlighted and quickly addressed.

One of the most cost-effective investments that we can make with our tax dollars is the guarantee that every student in our public schools will have the tools he or she needs to gain a comprehensive education for the challenges that lie ahead. Mediocrity is not acceptable.

Clean air, a renewed city, great schools. Consider the implications.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at