Cooper: The challenge for Bryan Johnson

Cooper: The challenge for Bryan Johnson

June 17th, 2017 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

Dr. Bryan Johnson, elected by the Hamilton County Board of Education as the new superintendent of schools, has a daunting task before him.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

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The hiring of Dr. Bryan Johnson to be the superintendent of Hamilton County Schools won't turn around one test score. It won't settle one lawsuit. It won't prepare one student for higher education or the workforce.

What it will do, we hope, is signal a new day for the district's 43,000-plus students, a day in which the we've-always-done-it-this-way approach is swept away, a day in which ineffective programs are scrapped, a day in which every dollar is accounted for, a day in which transparency and openness become administration hallmarks.

Those items are in the purview of Johnson, and if he attends to those we believe the district in time can surge.

The current chief academic officer of Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools was elected superintendent by the Hamilton County Board of Education Thursday night in a 5-4 vote over interim Superintendent Dr. Kirk Kelly.

As we have often said, Kelly is a kind and gracious man but not the leader we believe is necessary to lead the district at this critical time. Before becoming interim superintendent 14 months ago in a controversial vote, he had been an assistant superintendent only a year and before that had been the district's director of accountability and testing.

The months before the interim superintendent being named in 2016 had been among the lowest in the district in memory. Not only had test scores in the county's lowest performing schools not improved, but the district had had its schools improvement plan rebuked and was suffering from the aftereffects of the pool cue rape of an Ooltewah basketball player and the subsequent communications breakdown that led to the resignation of Superintendent Rick Smith.

By that time, the community movement Chattanooga 2.0 had sprung up to determine why the schools were not preparing students for higher education and the workforce. Rumbling had begun about several county municipalities creating their own school systems. And business leaders, parents and concerned citizens were beginning to demand significant change.

We believe Kelly and his chief academic officer, Jill Levine, attempted to stop the district slide this past school year by introducing new emphases on the likes of literacy and college/career preparation, and we hope those efforts will show quantifiable results.

Now we want Johnson, who was the best of the traditional candidates who were finalists for superintendent, to build on that start. The Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools have been recognized across the state for posting significant academic growth the past two years, according to standardized testing, and we hope Johnson can bring some of that success here.

He also was the youngest of the candidates the school board considered, so we hope that youthfulness will offer enthusiasm, flexibility and a willingness to innovate.

Johnson, to his credit, also gave in his local interview a more realistic answer than some candidates to a question about the partnership district that has been suggested by the state for some of the county's struggling schools. Instead of insisting he would change the state's mind about what will happen or deriding the state's plan, he said he would examine data, talk to the leaders of the schools that will be affected and work with the board to look at the state's proposal.

"We have to move forward," he said.

That's a better attitude than some on the board, who seem oblivious to the schools' more than decade-long achievement problem and believe Band-Aids will continue to suffice.

Johnson, similarly, answered with more realism a question about charter schools and vouchers. Instead of pretending there is no need for them — and the many private schools that already are here — he said the school district must offer a learning environment for every student. By that, he meant from privileged to impoverished.

"I never want a [student] to go to a private school for lack of performance in the public schools," he said. "We need to make it harder for charters and vouchers."

That is, after all, how charter schools and the desire for vouchers came to be — because parents sensed the public schools no longer served their children well.

In truth, we don't envy Johnson. Some will expect him to perform miracles. Some will expect him to fail. District administration, some principals and some teachers — plus almost half of the school board — wanted Kelly because he was less likely to rock the boat. They may make the start of Johnson's tenure difficult. Instead, we hope principles above personalities can be practiced.

Meanwhile, many business leaders, elected officials and others who believe the district needs significant change wanted anybody but Kelly. We hope they aren't expecting his replacement to walk on water until at least the end of his first semester.

Ultimately, we hope Johnson will understand the challenge, embrace the opportunity and become the change agent the county school system needs.

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