Sohn: Let's make 'Future Ready Institutes' happen

Sohn: Let's make 'Future Ready Institutes' happen

March 16th, 2018 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Howard student Hayle Mack speaks during a Thursday news conference announcing the launch of the Future Ready Institutes at Howard School. Howard is one of 11 high schools that will have career-oriented learning communities embedded within the school.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

Future Ready Institutes of Hamilton County.

It's a name that sounds promising. And we need some promise in a county whose public schools for decades have failed children.

Today is a new day, and the fruits of an education push from Chattanooga's business community, our foundations and now a newly energized Hamilton County Department of Education appear to be ripening.

What began some years ago as a plea from Chattanooga businesses when employers couldn't find local workers among our high school graduates morphed in 2015 into a Chamber of Commerce-spearheaded study committee dubbed Chattanooga 2.0. The committee authored a paper with clear lines tracing our myriad education problems and our specific business-sector needs.

Gradually, the group — with Department of Education input — explored ideas ranging from a new vocational school to lessons learned from a couple of industry-led local programs such as Hamilton County's Mechatronics Akademie, based in 2016 at Chattanooga's Volkswagen auto assembly plant.

Last fall, new Superintendent Bryan Johnson expanded on those ideas — literally on a napkin over breakfast with the Chamber's Chattanooga 2.0 coordinator Jared Bigham.

Borrowing from a model Johnson helped start in Clarksville, Tenn., when he worked there, Johnson's napkin sketch has now expanded to 11 different high schools in Hamilton County with 17 new learning "institutes." The institutes are literally small career-themed high schools embedded in some of our existing high schools.

It's a budget-friendly idea (no new bricks and mortar, no added teachers) that retools the way we teach students to be ready for tomorrow's jobs. The aim is prepare students for life after high school — whether they plan to attend college or not.

Each institute will offer industry-themed lessons, along with the usual core classes — English, math, science and social studies — each tailored to the students' interest and the institute's theme. Some of those institute themes include building and design, health and medicine, computer sciences, manufacturing, forensic science and engineering. Each institute will be supported by corresponding local industry partners such as Erlanger Health System, Unum and EPB.

This plan is well beyond talk now. The initial 17 institutes will open in August with up to 100 freshmen in each. Students will take interest and aptitude tests.

Enrollment in each institute will be open for about half of its students — even if the students are zoned in a school across town. School officials are still working out transportation details.

When Chattanooga 2.0 began, a common refrain — and a correct one — was that our community had shot itself in the foot years before by closing Kirkman Technical High School — the longtime, downtown vocational high school.

This plan has the promise to be a kind of new Kirkman in many locations for today's changing work world.

But don't mistake the institutes as mere vocational schools. Some feature credential programs that will make students jobs-ready upon graduation. Others will offer dual enrollment classes with Chattanooga State to give students a head start on a two-year associate degree in their chosen field. Others will steer youngsters on to a four-year degree at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga or another school.

Teachers aren't left out of the plan, either.

To help our educators retool English, math, science and social studies lessons to fields of study in, say, the Institute of First Responders and Forensic Science at Brainerd High School or the Institute of Tech Start Ups and Web Design at Soddy-Daisy, Unum has generously committed $300,000 in training funds over the next three years. The training begins in the summer and will include a week-long session at Unum's Chattanooga offices.

If this plan takes off with even half the promise it offers — special-interest and career-oriented teaching for up to 1,300 of our high schoolers — it will be an amazing accomplishment that should help begin to turn around our county's dismal education performance.

The real gain is for the students. They will have an opportunity not just to graduate high school, but also to graduate with real job opportunities and with real contacts to industries in our community.

It's the break our children should have been given for years on end.

Thanks to all who have supported this effort.

Now let's finally make it happen.

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