Hamilton County's newest charter school finds early success - here's why

photo Kindergarden students Jaielle McCane, left, and Jacques Smith work on an assignment at the Chattanooga Charter School for Excellence at the Eastgate Town Center.

HAMILTON COUNTY CHARTERSAside from Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence, the county has two other charter schools: Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, an all-girls middle and high school focusing on science, technology, engineering and math; and Ivy Academy, a high school focusing on environmental sciences. Another charter, specializing in business and law, is approved to open here in the future.

photo Kindergarden student Tomiaya Harrison raises her hand when she completes an assignment at the Chattanooga Charter School for Excellence at the Eastgate Town Center.

Three years ago, Marcia Griffin went door to door in the inner city, meeting with dozens of parents to pitch her idea for a new charter school in Chattanooga. She quibbled with the Hamilton County Board of Education for approval and finally opened her elementary school in the Eastgate Town Center, between a call center and a nightclub.

Now, the Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence has a waiting list. After only a couple of years, its test scores are starting to rival those of the public school system. And the school is looking to expand with the addition of a new middle school campus, either at Eastgate or another location.

The school's rise comes amid a contentious national battle over school choice and the role of charter schools, which advocates say help improve all education through the power of competition.

Chattanooga Charter could be one of Hamilton County's best arguments yet for charter schools. In just the school's first testing cycle, its students scored on a level comparable with county and state scores, even though nine out of 10 of its students are considered at risk because they live in poverty. In fact, officials say, the charter already has become one of the county's highest performers among high-poverty schools.

The county has a strong tradition of high-achieving magnet schools, but so far charters handle a small minority of schools -- collectively, the three charter schools educate less than 1 percent of the county's 42,000 students.

Griffin, who moved here from Florida to start the school, said she had originally planned on keeping the school K-5. But parents have repeatedly asked for an expansion of the program. The school hasn't spent a dime on advertising in the past two years, she said, because parents are spreading the word.

"I don't go looking for students," she said. "Our parents are the testimony."

Parents have different reasons for leaving their zoned public schools. But many say Chattanooga Charter makes them and students feel safe and welcome. Kids wrap their arms around teachers and staff members. Classes of 15 to 20 students are smaller than those in regular public schools. Teachers and administrators know each family and student intimately. Uniforms are required, boys and girls are separated to limit distractions, and the fast-paced curriculum continually pushes students.

"I would put them up against any school in Chattanooga," said Rosa M. Eaton, whose first-grade grandson attends the school.

Eaton said there are many great things about the school. But the most tangible is the high level of expectation for teachers, students and parents.

Parents are expected to get students to school on time. At 10 a.m., staff members start calling families to see why a student is missing. Quarterly report cards aren't sent home -- parents are expected to come to meet with teachers. School leaders say that high level of expectation goes for teachers and staff members, too.

"It's all about the expectations," Eaton said. "You create an environment where kids can specifically focus on learning."

Each week includes an extra three hours of instructional time. Teachers can be fired without the traditional constraints of tenure. And because pressure is high, Griffin says, the charter pays teachers more than Hamilton County's teacher pay scale.

"We pay them a little bit better than Hamilton County because I don't want any excuses," she said. "We have high expectations."

The first round of test scores is encouraging to the school's leaders and Hamilton County's central office. With 53.3 percent of students scoring proficient or advanced in reading on 2013 tests, the charter school outpaced the county average of 46.9 percent and the state average of 50.4 percent.

Math scores came just under county and state results with 46.7 percent of Chattanooga Charter students scoring proficient, though leaders expect those scores to rise next year: They say they didn't know students were allowed to use calculators.

Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith said the school is off to a great start.

"I think they've done a good job. It's not easy to start a school," Smith said. "They started strong, and they've maintained that momentum."

The charter school uses a separate curriculum from the public school system. Griffin says the coursework is more rigorous and all students, no matter their level of attainment, are expected to improve constantly. Starting in kindergarten, students receive Spanish instruction every other day and physical education daily.

"Our students aren't different," Griffin said. "We just take a different approach."

Charter schools are publicly funded, yet privately operated, schools. They receive a per-student allotment of state and local education funding -- about $7,500 in Hamilton County. Charters are part of the overall school choice movement, which argues that parents should be able to choose where their kids go to school, whether it be a traditional neighborhood school or not.

While some have criticized the charter school movement for bleeding public schools of students and funding, Griffin says her school does neither. If there wasn't a need, she said, the school wouldn't have more than 300 students plus a healthy waiting list.

Students come from across the county, but many come from East Ridge, East Chattanooga and Alton Park. Of the school's 328 students, 93 percent are eligible for free or reduced price lunches -- a common indicator of family poverty. School leaders say the expectations are the same for all students, regardless of their background.

College isn't a dream for students -- it's a basic presumption. And it's drilled in from day one.

If kids are sitting on their feet or slouching, a teacher might say, "Is that how you would sit in college?"

The school tries to take all students on college campus visits every year -- something that surprises people at colleges and universities, which are used to visits from high schoolers, not 6-year-olds.

"What schools do you know that start college visits in kindergarten?" said Tiffany McGee, whose son is in fourth grade at Chattanooga Charter.

McGee said teachers don't teach to the test, but they do meticulously track student progress. She's impressed with the rigor of the curriculum. Her student was on pace to score proficient. But at Chattanooga Charter, she said, that wasn't good enough. The school is now pushing him to score in the advanced category.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.