New Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson told local business leaders Wednesday that students graduating from high school need to be prepared for at least one of three futures: to go on to college, join the armed forces or to go straight into the workforce.
His plan to prepare students for that is by exposing them to options and opportunities early on, rather than in their senior year, Johnson said during a talk at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's Hixson Council lunch meeting.
"We have to be intentional with our work in regards to making sure students don't just graduate from Hamilton County, but when they walk across the stage, they're prepared for the next step," Johnson said.
He also said administrative decisions will be made based on the needs of the system. He gave the example of identifying the needs of struggling schools, which led to the development of the Opportunity Zone that will bring additional resources to those schools.
"We know we need to offer [them] an expedient level of support," he said. "We are committed to the Opportunity Zone, which will offer those schools a chance to experience the level of success we feel they deserve."
Data show county schools need to do better in math, science and social studies. The Hamilton County Department of Education is going to put additional support in those areas, he said.
"We're going to fix it, because the reality is that our teachers and our leaders are too engaged in the work [to] not have a successful public school system," he said.
Johnson also addressed the $100 million recently allocated for school repairs by the Hamilton County Commission.
"We've got needs that go beyond $100 million," he said. "It's exciting to hear you're getting $100 million until you get the $100 million and then realize there's $360 million in needs."
He said some people won't be happy with the way the money is spent, noting the school board "can't do everything for everybody." He said the money's use will be based on community growth, maximizing building efficiency (addressing schools built for more students than are enrolled) and not putting money into buildings that are beyond repair.
He said recruiting and retaining teachers and training leaders will be another focus.
"Our recruitment efforts won't be isolated to Hamilton County," he said. "We have to look at Georgia, Nashville, Knoxville. We want the best in Hamilton County."
As for retention, Johnson said the department will work to make sure mentorship and other support programs are "second to none" so teachers will want to stay in Hamilton County.
He said school leaders must understand three critical areas: developing a culture that's conducive for learning, having a clear academic focus and how to manage change.
The department plans to create a more accessible website to increase community engagement.
Hixson Council President Donald Kane had a few questions for the new schools chief, including about the "history of behavioral issues" and how Johnson plans to deal with it.
"It's an issue," Johnson said. "It's an issue that won't go away."
He said teachers will be trained on how to better manage classrooms. The schools system also has a protocol called "Love and Logic," which asks "students contemplate their actions, instead of reacting to punishment," according to the education department's website.
Going back to the $100 million in new money, Marv Martin, a local Realtor, asked how parents and others will know what's going on and why it's happening.
"Chattanooga has always had a reputation for a 'good old boy' system, and I think the solution to that is transparency and communication," Martin said, adding that the audit called for by UnifiEd was "a really good place to start."
Johnson agreed and said a long-term plan will be put in place to efficiently use the $100 million.
"The $360 million deficiency didn't happen overnight," he said. "It won't be fixed overnight."
Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.