Parents explore high school options for downtown and North Chattanooga

Parents explore high school options for downtown and North Chattanooga

December 11th, 2011 by Kevin Hardy in News

POLL: Is a new high school needed for North Chattanooga and downtown?

tThough her oldest child is only in second grade, Tracey Carisch already has her mind on high school.

She wonders what options will exist when her daughter leaves Normal Park Museum Magnet School after eighth grade. And she's not alone.

About 100 parents met last month to discuss concerns about their high school options. Primarily parents from Normal Park, along with some from Brown Academy and Battle Academy, they are wondering what comes next after their children leave those successful and sought-after magnet schools. Some even are pitching the idea of a new downtown high school.

"Maybe we're comfortable with the elementary schools we have, but what about our high school options?" Carisch said. "Parents have been concerned about high school."

While this amassing of parents is new, the discussion over what comes next for students in those magnet schools is years old.

"This conversation has gone on for several years. We get it all the time," said Karla Riddle, director of innovative programs for the Hamilton County Department of Education.

But these parents are doing more than just talking. They are moving forward with assessments of Red Bank High School -- into which the Normal Park zone feeds -- and what options exist for a new high school.

Red Bank High was among 19 Hamilton County schools this year to make the state's high-priority list of schools that missed No Child Left Behind testing benchmarks two years in a row.

Normal Park is in good standing, Principal Jill Levine said. It received straight A's for student achievement and value-added scores, which measure students year-to-year academic growth -- the only school in the district to do so.

Demographically, the schools look somewhat different, also. Normal Park is 78 percent white and 29.5 percent economically disadvantaged, according to the state report card. Red Bank is 64.6 percent white and 64.4 percent economically disadvantaged, records show.

If schools such as Red Bank need academic improvement, parents say, they want to help.

Bill Payne, also zoned for Normal Park, is working with a group to examine Red Bank High. His group will tour the school and meet with the principal in January.

With his oldest child in second grade at Normal Park, Payne wonders if his daughter will have a high school experience on par with her Normal Park education.

"It's not something you want to start thinking about when your kids are in eighth grade," he said.

More distant options parents are discussing include a new charter school or a new public school, either one serving as a Normal Park High School or a downtown-area high school.

But Carisch said that's not the immediate goal.

"Maybe someday this turns into an initiative to develop a downtown high school," she said. "But right now it's just parents looking at a bunch of different options."

Where to go?

Split into an upper and lower school, Normal Park provides prekindergarten through eighth-grade education to children living in its North Chattanooga zone and to magnet students from across the county.

Brown and Battle each have downtown-area zones and take in magnet students. But those schools go only to fifth grade, which means some parents' concerns are coming earlier than those at Normal Park.

Levine said most of her students go on to Red Bank High School, private school or the Center for Creative Arts, another Hamilton County magnet school.

A year at one of Chattanooga's more prestigious private schools can cost upward of $20,000.

Carisch said most parents involved in the discussions are interested in learning more about existing public school options such as Red Bank High. Some believe existing schools aren't of high-enough quality, she said, but they're beginning to rethink that perception.

"Right now, they're just making assumptions that, 'Oh, this isn't a reality for me,'" Carisch said. "What we all kind of walked away saying is that what we really have with our high schools is a little bit of a PR problem."

Parents aren't trying to put down other schools, Payne said.

"For a lot of people, private school is not an option," he said. "And they want to support the public schools."

Riddle, who oversees the magnet school program, said she ideally would like to see a new magnet middle/high school in the downtown or North Chattanooga area. Such a school could serve students from Battle, Brown and Normal Park.

"I would love to have a [grade] six through 12 school in the downtown area," she said. "I think we've got a growing need there. We've got a population that is invested in that area."

But that kind of undertaking might be years down the road.

The school district's three-phase facility plan includes $247 million in future building needs. A downtown high school isn't one of the proposed projects.