The 2011-12 Hunter Lecture Series
Speakers start at 7 p.m., and the event is free. Seating is first come, first served.
• Michelle Rhee: Sept. 20 at the Tivoli Theatre. Rhee is the former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools and founder of Students First.
• Armando Carbonell: Nov. 1 at the Roland Hayes Concert Hall at UTC. Carbonell is the author of "Regional Planning in America" and is a nationally recognized expert on land-use planning for growing metropolitan regions. He teaches planning at Harvard University.
• Robert Pinsky: Feb. 7 at Roland Hayes Concert Hall at UTC. Pinsky is a three-term national poet laureate and is the poetry editor for the magazine Slate. He regularly appears on the "PBS NewsHour," and his poems frequently are published in the New Yorker.
• Michael Pollan: April 19 at the Tivoli Theatre. Pollan is the author of "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," which was named one of the 10 best books in 2006 by The New York Times and the Washington Post.
A controversial educator will talk about putting students at the forefront of school reform efforts, a national poet laureate will argue for valuing art in economic tumult and a New York Times best-selling author will talk about food choices.
All are part of this year's George T. Hunter Lecture Series.
Two of the speakers, former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools Michelle Rhee and Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," are expected to draw such big crowds that they will speak at the Tivoli Theatre downtown.
In years past, popular speakers such as "Tipping Point" writer Malcolm Gladwell and New York Times editorial writer David Brooks stirred groups much larger than the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's 500-seat Roland Hayes Concert Hall could hold, forcing attendees to sit in overflow rooms.
"We have just been overwhelmed by the positive response we receive from the community," said Lori Quillen, community program director for the Benwood Foundation, which funds the lecture series. "Michelle Rhee is very outspoken on education reform, especially putting children ahead of adults and politics. We hope it will encourage a good dialog in terms of what we want to see in the county."
The lecture series has a $200,000 budget and, since it was launched in 2008, it has become a forum for community debate on issues of education, the environment, arts and culture and community development. The events are free to the public and seating is on a first come, first served basis.
Last year, some attendees were so inspired by a speech given by Harlem Children's Zone founder Geoffery Canada that they tried to begin an early children's education Promise Zone in Chattanooga's inner city.
The Harlem Children's Zone gained prominence after its early childhood education efforts carried many students on to college in the high-poverty New York City neighborhood.
Chattanooga Promise Zone, in the neighborhoods around Hardy Elementary School, plans to apply for a second time for federal funding to create community-supported afterschool programs for parents and children. The nonprofit was not selected for a grant in the first round of picks.
"We had an hour with Canada before the lecture series, and we had more than 300 people show up just to that," said Edna Varner, chairwoman of the Chattanooga Promise Zone. "What he talked about that was most inspiring to me was the continuum of service to support children because schools can't do it all."
It is hoped Rhee will generate a similar effect when she greets crowds in September. Tennessee has become a test case for many reform initiatives because of the federal Race to the Top initiative that provides millions of dollars for the state to enact reform.
The Legislature recently passed a bill that would tie teacher evaluations more closely to student performance. Then, early this year, teachers' unions were stripped of much of their negotiation powers.
When she took over Washington public schools in 2007, Rhee, a fierce advocate for tough teaching standards, closed 23 schools and fired 36 principals in the district, which was considered one of the worst in the country.
Over the next few years, the district had double-digit growth in both reading and math scores among students in seventh, eighth and 10th grades. Graduation rates and enrollment rates also climbed.
Rhee signed a contract with teacher unions in 2010 that weakened teacher protections and ended tenure for a year. Soon after, she fired 241 teachers for poor evaluations, but her swift decisions were criticized by some.
At the end of the year, she announced on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" that she was leaving the high-profile job to start Students First, a nonprofit that advocates abolishing teacher tenure.
Kevin Huffman, Tennessee's new commissioner of education, is Rhee's ex-husband.