Paul Smith promises he gave it his all.
But after six years as principal of the Howard School, he requested a transfer. And next year, he'll become principal at Tyner Middle Academy.
"I left sweat, tears and guts on the table," he said.
Howard is among about a dozen schools that will get new leaders next fall. Schools Superintendent Rick Smith announced principal and central office changes this week. Principal changes announced last year put more than 25 schools under new leadership in this academic year.
Paul Smith said his time at Howard was meaningful, but after making many personal sacrifices, it was time for a change.
"It's bittersweet because I love Howard," he said. "We've become a family and a community."
The city's oldest school, Howard was the first free public school, black or white, established in Hamilton County. And despite proud support from the black community, its students have struggled academically for years.
In 2011, test scores were so low that the state stepped in and threatened to take over the school. But significant improvements were made.
The school's graduation rate reached 88.3 percent in 2011 and 80.2 percent in 2012, both well above the 2010 rate of 68.6 percent. A dress code was enforced, programs were recruited. Smith, always dressed in a suit and tie, made sweeping speeches to the student body and laid out expectations of excellence. Expulsions and suspensions plummeted.
And, for the first time in a decade, Howard's test scores put it in good standing with the state. It moved out of the lowest-performing 5 percent of Tennessee schools.
"It's a whole new climate at the school and a whole new climate with the parents," said Gerald Mason, a longtime Howard supporter and member of Friends of Howard. "He's been a godsend."
The struggle for turnaround reignited a community conversation about race, poverty and education.
Thousands in Chattanooga and across the country watched a documentary called "Build Me a World" that followed a handful of Howard students approaching graduation.
Many attribute the promotion of the school and its academic improvements, in part, to Smith's leadership.
"He's brought stability to Howard," Smith said Friday.
A replacement hasn't yet been chosen.
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249.