Sohn: New leader, community offer schools fresh start

Sohn: New leader, community offer schools fresh start

June 17th, 2017 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Recently selected Hamilton County Schools superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson speaks to the public during a meet-and-greet in the Board of Education meeting room on Thursday, June 8, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

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We welcome Tennessee educator Bryan Johnson as Hamilton County's new schools superintendent.

We believe he is an excellent choice — the best, in fact that the board could make. Johnson, at 34, is energetic and ambitious, something our school system has been sorely lacking for years.

In 2010, Johnson received a doctorate in educational leadership and professional practice from Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville while working in the Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools, a large school district north of Nashville. He started his career in 2008 as a teacher and coach, and he was promoted through the ranks. He was named chief academic officer there in 2015.

Now he comes to Hamilton County at a time when our schools are up against a mountain of challenges. The district faces multiple federal lawsuits. The state is intervening in some of our lowest-performing schools. Signal Mountain, with some of our higher-performing schools, is looking to break away from the county system. And our county commission historically has been unwilling to increase school funding.

A full 60 percent of our system's third-graders can't read at grade level. Nearly a third of our teachers are ranked by the state as "least-effective," and that's twice the percentage of the state's other metropolitan school systems and three times the state average.

Only 38 percent of our young adults in the local workforce have some sort of technical training or any kind of college degree, and our new employers say they expect over the next three to five years to have 15,000 job openings they will not be able to fill with local people because our high school graduates aren't jobs-ready.

Johnson will need every bit of his great store of energy. But the board — which approved him with a 5-4 vote Thursday — has high hopes.

Member Tiffanie Robinson said she she was impressed with the work he's been a part of in improving Clarksville- Montgomery County Schools.

"He has shown energy, strategy and a desire to truly be a part of our community," Robinson said. "Those skills will make him a strong superintendent."

Member Joe Smith said Johnson has already put together a plan for how he'll spend his first 100 days in the district, and he is ready to see him act upon it.

"My hope is that the board, the county commission, principals, teachers and everyone in Hamilton County will get behind Dr. Johnson, and, together, let's make our schools the best in the state," he said.

This board has never put very much oversight into the work of its only employee — the superintendent of schools.

That's a shame, and it is why we came to the place we are now, nearly a year and a half after long-time superintendent Rick Smith resigned amid the turmoil of an Ooltewah High School hazing rape, falling test scores systemwide, a business community concerned about its local workforce and a school board suddenly shocked to be the focus of frightening headlines and low community trust.

We — and certainly others locally — were encouraged by board member Rhonda Thurman's insistence Thursday that the new superintendent's contract include specific benchmarks. We hope and expect those benchmarks to include many of the recommendations from a recent business group report, as well as the goals from Chattanooga 2.0.

Specifically, we hope the new superintendent and the board will improve accountability by hiring a chief operating officer, a chief talent officer and a chief information officer; improve strategic planning by making the district part of the planning commission's approval process; reduce the number of schools and teachers to boost efficiency and student learning, and improve teacher effectiveness with better pay that is tied to teacher quality.

Similarly, we were encouraged to see that County Mayor Jim Coppinger attended the school board meeting, as did county commissioners Sabrena Smedley, Randy Fairbanks, Chester Bankston and Warren Mackey. State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, also was present. We have criticized the school board and the county commission for not meeting together and discussing the school system's needs more often. Today we offer a hearty thank you to the mayor and commissioners.

We also hope our county leaders will follow the recommendations of Chattanooga 2.0 and the business group that Mayor Coppinger formed. Specifically, we suggest that the county hire two full-time school performance auditors and make a strong funding commitment to schools — a commitment that will at the very least establish a new tax dedicated to schools infrastructure, tech and innovation.

Johnson alone cannot turn around our schools, any more than his kind and thoughtful predecessor — interim superintendent Kirk Kelly — who received four of the nine board votes for the top job Thursday. No single person can.

We gratefully commend Kelly for holding the system together these past 15 months and for making the beginnings of improvements.

By now, it should be clear to everyone in Hamilton County that building a great school system is a community job, and until this past year, the community has been missing in action.

We have a fresh chance now. Let's not blow it.

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