As Chattanooga grows, businesses struggle to find qualified local applicants

Local coalition seeks to transform public schools, secure region's economic future

Data show 65 percent of graduates of the Hamilton County Schools system fail to earn any education past high school, leaving them unqualified for the majority of jobs coming to the area.
photo Data show 65 percent of graduates of the Hamilton County Schools system fail to earn any education past high school, leaving them unqualified for the majority of jobs coming to the area.

It's getting harder and harder for local boosters to argue the region has a skilled workforce to offer.

Concerned business leaders say the Chattanooga metropolitan area has a glut of job openings and predict future growth, but they are frustrated because they cannot recruit qualified local candidates.

Data show 65 percent of graduates of the Hamilton County Schools system fail to earn any education past high school, leaving them unqualified for the majority of jobs coming to the area.

The implications are so dire that a coalition of businesses, educators and foundations is seeking to galvanize community support around an effort to transform public schools and secure the region's economic future.

The group hopes to create a road map and stir a movement that can produce results similar to downtown's renaissance that began decades ago and has gained the city national recognition.

"We've got a moral obligation and an economic imperative, and that's a game-changer for public education," said Sarah Morgan, who heads the Benwood Foundation, one of the city's most influential nonprofit organizations. "This is about people. It's about our kids, and our families."

A report being released today called Chattanooga 2.0 offers a sobering picture of local school performance and crystallizes mounting concern over the area's precarious position as it heads into a decade of expected job growth. The report was commissioned by the Benwood Foundation, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the Hamilton County Department of Education and the Public Education Foundation.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith, who has been involved in spearheading the effort for more than a year, said the grim realities highlighted in the report prove it's time for everyone, including those with no obvious ties to schools, to take a hard, honest look at the county's approach to education.

"It's time we ask, 'Where are our priorities?'" Smith said.

It starts with training

The county has around 15,000 existing jobs that are not currently filled by Hamilton County residents based on education requirements alone, according to data from a Boston-based Internet company, and chamber officials predict the number only will grow as residents do not have the educations required to hold these positions.

In the coming years, 83 percent of job postings in the county paying a livable wage of at least $35,000 a year are expected to require education past high school. That could be anything from a 12-week commercial driving course or a six-month to one-year technical training program to a two-year associate's degree or a four-year bachelor's degree.

If nothing changes, the county will be unable to supply local workers with the skills needed to fill these positions, as only 35 percent of Hamilton County's public high school graduates complete a training, certificate or degree program within six years after graduation, data show.

Other factors affecting the skills gap, according to the report, include: Hamilton County's standardized testing and ACT scores are below the state average, and schools trail the state's other major metro districts in academic growth.

County schools have dropped into the bottom 10 of all 141 districts in the state on Algebra I test scores.

Fewer than half of Hamilton County Schools teachers were rated "Above Expectations" last year, and the percentage of "Above Expectations" teachers in high-poverty schools was just 30 percent, based on student growth.

Only about one in 20 county students attends an exceptional or high-performing school.

Black students are 33 times more likely than white students to attend the lowest-performing schools statewide.

Only 56 percent of the jobs in Hamilton County are held by residents.

So the report challenges the community to aim for a lofty goal: To raise the number of residents with postsecondary credentials from 38 percent to 75 percent by 2025. That bar is higher than the one proposed under Gov. Bill Haslam's "Drive to 55," which calls for a statewide increase to 55 percent by the same year.

It's time for the wider Chattanooga community to wake up, accept reality and act, Morgan said.

"It's not just the school district or higher education that need to take responsibility, it's really all of us," she said.

Training costs money

In the spring, Smith held dozens of public meetings to emphasize the county's obligation to give children the hope of a solid economic future through strong schooling.

Part of the plan he hoped to sell would have pumped more money into schools through a local property tax increase. The school system has gone a decade without a funding boost from a tax increase, despite its struggle to meet the needs of a growing share of low-income students who enter schools far behind their wealthier peers.

But county commissioners, who set the property tax rate, wouldn't go along. Some argued previous funding boosts had not correlated to school improvement.

A tax increase debate remains mired in politics and support has been difficult to rally, Smith and many other players admit.

But the business community's newfound worry over the region's future, and willingness to partner in working toward a solution, could turn the tide, Smith said.

"We can't do it on our own," he said.

Chattanooga 2.0 endorsers to date:

Benwood FoundationBlue Cross Blue ShieldChattanooga Chamber of CommerceChattanooga NAACPChattanooga State Community CollegeUrban League of Greater Chattanooga Inc.Community Foundation of Greater ChattanoogaEnterprise CenterEPBFootprint FoundationHamilton County Department of EducationHamilton County Education AssociationHamilton County PTA CouncilLamp Post GroupMaclellan FoundationMcKenzie FoundationPublic Education FoundationRead 20Tech TownUnited Way of Greater ChattanoogaUniversity of Tennessee at ChattanoogaUnifiEDUnum

What is next?

To combat the problems highlighted in the report, three task forces will begin working in January to develop plans addressing:Issues surrounding early childhood and school readinessHow public education can better prepare graduates for postsecondary educationTightening the pathway between postsecondary training and work

Goals of Chattanooga 2.0

Working to raise the share of Hamilton County residents who have training after high school to 75 percent involves improving education at every level. Organizers provided these additional benchmark goals in the report:School readiness: Offer quality pre-K to every student, and create 1,000 additional pre-K seatsThird-grade foundations: Have 90 percent of students reading on grade levelSchool success: Have 75 percent of students on grade level in math by eight grade, and ensure every student has a career exploration portfolioPostsecondary readiness: Raise ACT scores in Hamilton County above the state average, provide 1,000 summer jobs and internships for high school studentsPostsecondary completion: Enroll 90 percent of high school grads in a postsecondary institution, and have 80 percent complete a certificate or degree within six yearsWorkforce ready: Increase the number of residents with jobs paying more than $35,000 by 100,000, and have 65 percent of the jobs in Hamilton County filled by residents*Source: Chattanooga 2.0

Problems across the board

Most assume the local school problem is contained to a few troubled inner-city schools. But the Chattanooga 2.0 report shows even the district's top-performing high schools struggle to produce enough skilled graduates.

It's true that students from very poor neighborhoods are almost guaranteed to attend a school where a majority of students are disadvantaged and academically behind.

Smith said the district's poverty rate is 40 percent, and most students entering Hamilton County public schools now are significantly behind and not considered "ready to learn."

"Poverty is a factor in who we are, and the results we have right now," Smith said. "And we need to attack that."

The report shows 60 percent of county third-graders cannot read on grade level, and research shows those students will continue to struggle through their academic careers.

Hamilton County high school students trail the state in every tested subject, and ACT scores are below state and national averages. Students in five local high schools have an average ACT score below 16, meaning these students do not meet even the minimum ACT requirement to enroll in the local technical school.

At Brainerd High School, one of the lowest-performing schools in the state, only 9 percent of graduates earn any type of postsecondary credentials within six years of graduation. But, even at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, one of the highest-performing high schools in the district, just 57 percent of students do.

Chattanooga State Community College and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga are unable to graduate a large share of students who enter their programs. The overall six-year graduation rate at Chattanooga State is 24 percent and it's 51 percent at UTC, data show.

Minority students have an even lower chance of completing a degree within six years. Only 5.5 percent of black students earn a two-year degree at Chattanooga State and just 40 percent finish at UTC.

Looking for solutions

The projection of 28,000 jobs arriving in Hamilton County over the next 10 years offers a vehicle to help move residents out of poverty. Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation, hopes the community will seize the opportunity to help prepare students to attain the qualifications needed to fill these jobs.

"This job growth assures everybody an opportunity at a job, a good job," Challener said. "All of us have to find ways to help. All of us have to find ways to seize the opportunity."

Drumming up community support requires hard work, leaders acknowledge, but they hope, as more feel a sense of urgency, that taking action will become an imperative.

As of now there is no master plan for how to tackle the issues presented in the Chattanooga 2.0 report.

But organizers hope a "coalition of the willing" will work toward developing those strategies during a 100-day, communitywide planning period they expect to launch in January.

And a workable plan could offer enormous hope to families across the region who are struggling financially and without much optimism about their children's futures.

If 75 percent of county residents attain training after high school, the report states: 100,000 more local residents will have access to jobs paying more than $35,000.

Every adult worker in Hamilton County will receive an average raise of $4,500.

Hamilton County will see an increase of $1.1 billion in total wages each year.

Eight thousand adults will move out of poverty.

Hamilton County's gross domestic product would be increased by $2.8 million.

Bill Kilbride, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, said businesses have a lot to learn about how and why the gaps are created, and finding ways to connect people to jobs will be hard.

"It's not a lay-up," Kilbride said. "But a shared responsibility."

To make this effort successful moving forward, the business community and the community at large need to understand the dynamics playing into poverty, some of which go beyond the reach of schools and jobs, the group behind the report argues.

At the heart of a thriving local economy are stable families with opportunities in reach, regardless of ZIP Code, Kilbride said.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfree or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and