• 2003-04: 40,631
• 2004-05: 39,892
• 2005-06: 40,214
• 2006-07: 40,713
• 2007-08: 40,461
• 2008-09: 40,830
• 2009-10: 41,241
• 2010-11: 41,930
• 2011-12: 42,248
Source: Hamilton County Department of Education
Hamilton County Schools have about 42,250 students enrolled this year -- the highest figure in nearly a decade.
The number is one of the largest enrollment counts ever, Superintendent Rick Smith told a group of business leaders Thursday morning. In 1999, the district counted 42,773 students, said Smith, who took over as superintendent on July 7.
Addressing the downtown council of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, Smith said the county school system is continuing its recent trend of student growth. This year's count is up from a nine-year low of 40,461 four years ago.
What once was a shift from urban to suburban areas is now sustained growth in the county, said Smith, especially on the east side. East Hamilton School, a combination middle and high school, and elementary schools in that area are at or over capacity, he said.
The district needs to build an elementary school on the county's east side, as well as replace the undersized Ooltewah Elementary School, he said. He said he hopes a new school could be completed in three to four years.
"It's time for us to stop talking about building," he said. "We've got to get busy."
East Hamilton has almost 2,100 children in grades six through 12, though the building was built for only about 1,650 students.
While redistricting the school zones is often a contentious process, he said the district will consider rezoning some of its schools, including East Hamilton, to help alleviate overcrowding.
"We're going to have to look at these areas that are just bursting at the seams," Smith said.
Speaking to a crowd of about 100, Smith said he's making literacy, math and leadership the three top priorities of his administration.
As a former principal, Smith said he wants to ensure that all school leaders are doing more than just managing buildings and need to spend time in the classroom with teachers and kids. To that end, he said he's already spent a great deal of time working with the district's 76 principals.
He said he has told principals that, if they want to do a better job, to "get your behind out of your office. Quit dealing with those Mickey Mouse parent problems and get in the classrooms," he said.
The superintendent said the school district will pursue a state grant to open a STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- school next year. The grant application process is expected to begin next week and last about 60 days, he said and, while that's a tight timeline, such a school would be important in educating the next generation of workers.
"This is about jobs. It's about economic issues as much as it's about education issues," he said.
To operate the school -- and to win the grant -- the school will need significant support from businesses.
"I'm not going to be shy," Smith said. "I'm going to push the business community."
Tom Francescon, past president of the Chamber's downtown council, said he thinks the local business community is probably up for the challenge. Area businesses need employees with advanced math, science and technology skills that they can learn in county schools, he said.
"I'm obviously not speaking for everybody," he said, "but I do believe that there would be the interest and the desire to be part of this."