Hamilton County is poised to strengthen its education system in the coming years, with the implementation of state reforms and the opening of a new school centered on science, technology, engineering and math, according to local education leaders.
But to thrive, schools will need the help of local businesses and industry leaders, they said.
"The thing that has always bothered me is that we have always operated as silos. Let's figure out a way to get business and industry more involved on a regular basis with our schools," Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith said Thursday at a forum hosted by Chattanooga Rotary.
Smith, Chattanooga State Community College President Jim Catanzaro and Public Education Foundation President Dan Challener discussed public education at the forum.
Smith said he is encouraged by local businesses' work on the science, technology, engineering and math high school -- known as STEM -- which could open this fall if funded by a state grant. But he said more work is needed to break down barriers among businesses, schools, nonprofits and higher education.
Hamilton County is expected to receive the state grant next week to fund the STEM school, which will be on the Chattanooga State campus.
Challener said the STEM school could present an unprecedented opportunity for the community.
"It's the opportunity to bring together people in this room and organizations that work in STEM fields to come work side-by-side with teachers," he said.
The state's grant requires partnership among schools, higher education nonprofits and businesses. In its application for the grant, Hamilton County was able to show support and cooperation among the organizations, Smith said.
At the forum, the three-member panel spoke at length on school reform issues, such as the state's new teacher evaluation system. They pointed to teacher quality and heightened standards as keys to improving Tennessee's academic performance.
"If we can improve the teacher quality in this community, that's how we get better results," Challener said. "I, for one, believe this is a special moment for the state and the community that we need to seize."
Smith said the state's former teacher evaluation system was "archaic," evaluating tenured teachers a minimum of twice in 10 years. But the new local model requires several rounds of observation for all teachers every year.
"We're not about scores. We're about improvement," he said. "We're about getting teachers better."
Catanzaro said he's cautiously optimistic about the new changes in state education law, but noted he's still "somewhat cynical" about reforms because such movements haven't shown results in the past.
"I hope we're off to a start that's going to be a real start," he said. "I'm also very cautious about them because the history of reform is not a very good history."