TORNADOES LEAVE MARK
The April 27 tornadoes that left mass destruction across the region left a hefty imprint on public education, as districts across the region saw damaged buildings, devastated students and shortened school years.
Powerful winds left considerable damage when they pulled the roofs off Ringgold High School and Middle School. Students initially attended school at Ringgold's rivals Heritage Middle and High.
In what administrators called a miracle, students were able to return to the refurbished Ringgold High by Sept. 6. Eighth-graders also attend the high school as construction continues on their building.
Tornadoes devastated much of Dade County, Ga., though schools remained mostly intact. Dade Elementary's roof was lost in the storms.
Plainview High School in Rainsville, Ala., was severely damaged.
In Bradley County, Tenn., Blue Springs and Michigan Avenue elementary schools were heavily damaged by tornadoes. Students from the destroyed Blue Springs Elementary were sent to other schools. Michigan Avenue students returned to class in their building but were kept apart from reconstruction work.
The year saw significant changes in state education law from the Tennessee General Assembly, with divisive results. Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said he hopes the Legislature will reverse course on some of its 2011 laws, such as those that changed teacher evaluations and opened the door to for-profit virtual schools. Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said the reforms were meant to address long-term "educational deficiencies" and wouldn't likely be changed.
YEAR IN REVIEW
As 2011 inches toward the history book, Times Free Press reporters recap the highlights and low points of the year.
• Wednesday: City, county elected leaders face challenges, change
• Thursday: VW, Amazon openings soften economic blows
• Friday: Reform dominates public education
• Today: Top stories of 2011
Some of public education's most sacred cows vanished this year as the Tennessee General Assembly took on one of its most aggressive education reform sessions ever.
At home in Chattanooga, a changing of the guard also took place as school board members ousted Hamilton County's five-year superintendent in favor of a longtime schools administrator.
In what reformers say were long-overdue changes, the Republican-controlled Legislature rewrote the teacher tenure law, stripped away teachers' collective bargaining rights and enacted a teacher evaluation system that, for the first time, ties teacher performance to student achievement. The state also expanded the use of virtual and public charter schools.
"That was one of the most aggressive legislative sessions for public education in my memory," said Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith.
Changes this spring sparked the ire of the Tennessee Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, and TEA's local affiliate, the Hamilton County Education Association.
The tenure change, signed into law in April, makes it harder for new teachers to receive and keep tenure and lengthens the time it takes a teacher to qualify for tenure from three years to five. Tenure is no longer automatic, meaning some instructors could teach a whole career without ever receiving the lifetime job protection.
Originally approved in 1978, the state's collective bargaining law required school boards to bargain in districts where most teachers had organized into unions. Teachers were able to negotiate planning time, school safety issues, vacation time and higher pay and benefits.
Signed into law in June, the new law replaces collective bargaining with what Republicans legislators called "collaborative conferencing." Under the law, boards must meet with teachers, but do not have to reach agreement on contract issues.
But local teachers won't experience effects of the new law for a while. The HCEA ratified a three-year contract just before the law was changed.
The new teacher evaluation system moves from one that required as little as one review every five years to more frequent evaluations. So far, it seems to have mixed reviews. Hamilton County uses a locally designed evaluation model, called Project Coach, which was piloted here in most schools during the 2010-11 school year.
Many teachers and principals say they're pleased with Project Coach, which requires six to eight unannounced observations annually for all teachers. Principals have quick feedback sessions with teachers following each observation and post findings on an online database.
But other Tennessee teachers, using the state model, have complained about that system and the associated paperwork and planning time. Earlier this month, Gov. Bill Haslam ordered an external and internal review of the evaluation system.
A NEW LEADER
In Hamilton County, a politically divided school board spent almost $300,000 in taxpayer funds to manage the buyout and ouster of five-year Superintendent Jim Scales.
Scales would later say he lost his job because he was unwilling to base hiring on the preferences of county commissioners and school board members.
The board elected to circumvent its own policy requiring a series of meetings, a possible outside search and public interviews when selecting the new chief. Instead, they chose to fast-track Smith, a former science teacher, principal and central office administrator with nearly three decades of education experience.
He took office June 10 as interim superintendent and was later given the post permanently.
Smith was considered for superintendent in 2006 but withdrew his name from consideration in the process that ultimately lead to Scales' hiring. At that time, Smith said, he had only served as deputy superintendent for about six months. Now he feels more psychologically and technically ready for the superintendent's job, he said.
"I think I'm better prepared now," Smith said this month.
He said he's spent much of his first six months in office building relationships with community leaders, politicians and business officials.
"Part of my message has been that public education is a community issue," Smith said. "I think there's a lot more conversation now about how public education in Hamilton County fits into the community."
GROWTH AND BUILDING
To meet continued growth in student enrollment, particularly in the eastern part of the county, the school system has several new schools planned. The district will also look at opening a new science, technology, math and engineering school -- STEM -- with the aid of state grant money.
The STEM school could open in August 2012 on the campus of Chattanooga State Community College if the state approves a grant of about $1.8 million, which would come from federal Race to the Top dollars. The school system will receive word on whether the funding is approved in January.
The first sign of relief for overcrowding on the county's east side will come with the opening of a new Ooltewah Elementary School, which is slated for about 30 vacant acres just west of Interstate 75 off Ooltewah-Georgetown Road. The school will house up to 1,000 students and replace the undersized Ooltewah Elementary at 9232 Lee Highway.
The school board and County Commission recently tapped Franklin Architects to build the $23 million school, which could open as early as fall 2013. The new elementary will help relieve overcrowding at Snow Hill and Wallace A. Smith elementary schools.
Construction also will continue next year on the new 800-student Red Bank Middle School, which is set to open by August 2013. In September, Red Bank Mayor Monty Millard said the $29 million school represents the "single largest investment ever made in our city."
The 160,000-square-foot middle school is being built behind Red Bank High School on Morrison Springs Road to replace the outdated middle school on Dayton Boulevard.
With $50 million in bonds the county made available in October, the schools system could fund the Ooltewah project, a $4.8 million renovation and addition at Snow Hill Elementary and a new East Brainerd Elementary School to relieve overcrowding at East Brainerd and Westview Elementary.
The first phase of the school board's facility plan also includes an addition at Nolan Elementary, an addition and renovation at Wolftever Elementary and an addition at Sale Creek Middle-High School, though school officials say a new school should be considered there.
In all, school officials have presented a plan with an estimated $247 million in future building needs.
Hamilton County plans to get serious in 2012 about rezoning schools, especially those such as the overcrowded East Hamilton School, a combination middle and high school. Rezoning will be part of a larger move to fewer yet larger buildings that will eventually save on operational costs, officials say.
"Instead of closing schools, I'd like us to talk about consolidation of schools," Smith said.
Tennessee lawmakers may try again to implement a voucher program that would allow poor students to use public money to attend private schools. An initial effort stalled in the 2011 General Assembly.
In August, voters will choose four school board members as the terms expire for board members Chip Baker, Linda Mosley, George Ricks and Rhonda Thurman. Filing to run for the seats begins in January.
While reformers made progress in changing public policy in 2011, much implementation work remains for 2012, said Jamie Woodson, president and CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a reform group founded by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee.
"I think in 2012, just dedicating to the execution of those policies and ensuring they are implemented well -- that's the rough work of it," Woodson said. "It's rolling up our sleeves and turning these policies into improved student achievement."
High school performance likely will see greater local and statewide scrutiny. Scores on state tests improved for elementary and middle school students across the state.
But high school scores saw slight dips on 2011 results. At the same time, Tennessee high school students fell to 49th in the nation on college readiness on the ACT, the most widely used college entrance exam.
"Statewide high school and ACT scores need to make strong, positive gains," said Dan Challener, president of the local Public Education Foundation. "There needs to be more attention paid to the high schools."
Challener said Tennessee is nationally viewed as a leader in educational reform. And Hamilton County is seen as a statewide leader, given its work on developing its own, well-received teacher evaluation model.
While both Tennessee and the county have made great strides, Challener said educators must keep pushing to raise Tennessee students' academic achievement.
"There's a lot of energy," Challener said. "Because we look at the national and international results. And we look at what our local businesses need and say, 'Wow, there's still a lot of work to be done.'"