Sohn: Change agent and schools savior wanted

Superintendent of Schools Rick Smith waits in the Hamilton County School Board meeting room.

Wanted: a change agent for all of Hamilton County's educational thinking.

We're not talking just about a new schools superintendent who can think in future tense for a school system stuck in the 1970s.

And we're not talking only about a school board shocked into an uncomfortable panic by a high school team hazing-turned-aggravated-rape incident.

We're also not talking just about the ostriches on the Hamilton County Commission who want their names over school doors and ballfield gates but put their heads in the sand when it's time to raise taxes for books, computers, art teachers and early childhood education.

Nor are we talking just about the myriad of public and private education advocacy groups and foundations in town that, year after year, offer first one, and then another, education report or blueprint or initiative.

A few citizens have already tried talking "change-agent" stuff with each of these groups. Some tried the concept, some didn't.

But that's the thing: What we have been talking about - even occasionally trying - in each of these education silos isn't working. It hasn't worked for a long time. Actually, it has probably never worked.

We as a community have tried a little bit of everything. Everything, that is, except working together. Working together to provide enough leadership and enough capital - both mental and financial - to actually spark change.

Now time has run out, and we are reaping the weedy seeds of the fallow fields we failed to cultivate.

We have out-of-control school children who are bored to distraction with tired teaching they can't understand. We know that 60 percent of our third-graders do not read on grade level, and if they can't read textbooks they stop learning altogether in the later grades.

We have schools filled with students (nearly 43,780 in our 79 schools) who, as a county group, tested below the state average in nine of 10 TCAP categories by as many as 16.7 percentage points.

And here in the Gig City, with plenty of new manufacturing jobs including those at a state-of-the-art auto assembly plant, Hamilton County employers say they have 15,000 unfilled jobs because they can't find educationally qualified applicants.

Read that again: " they can't find educationally qualified applicants." Why? Because our kids can't read well enough, can't do math well enough, don't understand science concepts well enough to transfer basic learning to the workplace.

What part of "what we're doing isn't working" do we not understand?

Which word in "failed schools" can we not read?

This editorial page has called for using the attention brought to our schools by the Ooltewah hazing/rape to turn our school system's darkest days into positive change.

But all the editorials and foundation reports and high-level resignations we could possibly hope for won't really bring the change we need until students and parents and grandparents and employers insist on it. Loudly. Consistently. Unrelentingly.

Employers are beginning to come around. Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bill Kilbride, in the wake of Superintendent Rick Smith's announcement that he will step down, said the chamber will redouble support for the Chattanooga 2.0 education initiative - a goal to use best teaching practices and best educational approaches to ensure that 75 percent of our graduating high school seniors will earn a post-secondary credential. This isn't just a feel-good goal. It's an essential need because more than 80 percent of our jobs that pay a living annual wage require it.

To get our students to those post-secondary certifications, of course, high schools have to graduate students. And to graduate students, our middle and elementary schools have to be improved from the ground up.

In coming weeks, you can pretty much count on school board members and county commissioners to devolve into spit fights over whether a new superintendent should be home-grown or be an outsider. You can count, too, on these leaders spiraling into nonsensical rants over school costs and funding. After all, we get what we pay for, and we don't pay for much.

Frankly, though, the petty questions of insider/outsider and pay-me-now or pay-me-later aren't the important ones.

The single most important factor that will shape our children's education from this day forward is whether we can find a positive change agent with the vision and grit necessary to take on disengaged students and parents, rudderless and underpaid teachers, an in-grown educator-heavy school board, a head-in-the-sand County Commission, election-consumed municipal and county mayors, and state leaders who will only vote on school issues if the National Rifle Association is the lobby.

It's a hundred-mile walk to school uphill both ways in the snow, but our children and our county are worth it.

This job ad - this hire - is unquestionably the most important one that any public or private Southeast Tennessee or North Georgia group will make in this and coming years.

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