Chattanooga 2.0 has goal to make city the smartest in the South

Keri Randolph, center, speaks during a meeting about Chatt 2.0 on Friday at the Times Free Press Jared Bigham, left, and Kirk Kelly listen.

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In their words

› “This is a burning bridge moment … I think people realize this is almost a do-or-die moment for this community around access to opportunities.”— Jared Bigham, coordinator of Chattanooga 2.0› “We have an early childhood education desert in our community.” — Lesley Scearce, CEO of the United Way of Greater Chattanooga› “We cannot operate in a vacuum, so we need help … We are already doing some good work and we are wanting to get better.” — Kirk Kelly, interim superintendent of Hamilton County Schools› “[Chattanooga 2.0] is really reimagining what education should look like and what it could be like for our kids … The strategies that are in place really reflect that, and as a whole this is about reimagining that infrastructure of opportunity.” — Keri Randolph, director of innovation for Hamilton County Schools› “We know we have to move that 43 percent [literacy rate in grades 3-8] to 80 percent, and we are going to stay awake at night until we do.” — Jill Levine, chief academic officer of Hamilton County Schools› “What excites us the most about Chattanooga 2.0 is the big bold goal of having 75 percent [of adults with a post-secondary degree or credential] … We want to help more students walk across that graduation stage.”— Nancy Patterson, a vice president at Chattanooga State Community College­› “We also need to have some success right now for the kids we have right now.” — Sarah Morgan, president of the Benwood Foundation

By the numbers

› More than 170 people are a part of Chattanooga 2.0’s various leadership teams› 1,500 educators responded to the Hamilton County Schools survey› Multiple student-led panels and focus groups were held with students attending Hamilton County Schools, UTC, and Chattanooga State programs› 20 parent focus groups were held› 200 people responded to a Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce survey› More than 1,000 attendees came to various 2.0 community forums and speaker series› Dozens of interviews were conducted with local leaders and policy makersSource: Chattanooga 2.0

Providing all Hamilton County residents access to economic opportunity, regardless of ZIP code, is weighty work.

But a group of business and nonprofit leaders, educators and other members of the community have set a goal of doubling the number of residents with a post-secondary education within the next decade. That goal - along with 10 strategies for reaching it - is outlined in a plan released today by Chattanooga 2.0 that starts at birth, carries through k-12 and leads to a job.

Chattanooga 2.0 is an initiative started by the Benwood Foundation, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the Hamilton County Department of Education and the Public Education Foundation. Its leaders say the community must work with urgency to ensure greater educational equity and economic opportunity for its residents.

"We're really at a significant moment for this community," said Sarah Morgan, a founding partner of Chattanooga 2.0 and president of the foundation. "It's our chance to drive and press toward action so we can build an infrastructure of opportunity for everyone."

Eighty percent of the jobs arriving in the county paying more than $35,000 a year require some sort of post-secondary certificate or degree, so Chattanooga 2.0's road map sets goals to:

- Increase the number of county residents with a post-secondary degree or credential from 38 to 75 percent;

- Double the number of Hamilton County School graduates who earn a post-secondary certificate or degree each year from 650 to 1,300 by 2025.

The importance of providing opportunity for all students was made reality Thursday night for David Steele, vice president of policy and education at the chamber.

Sitting in a magnet school orientation session with hopes of getting his daughter a spot at the school through a lottery, Steele said he was overwhelmed with the sense of pride for this school that filled the auditorium, but also the desperation of many parents who knew winning their kid a seat through the lottery was the only way to provide them with opportunity.

"It's that juxtaposition of pride and desperation that drives us here," Steele said, noting that only a certain number of students would receive a spot at the school.

Binoculars are not needed to find the best practices and success in education, Steele said, but the challenge facing Hamilton County is how to provide that top-shelf education to all students. To meet this challenge, Steele said it will take people spanning all sectors of the county coming together and working to implement and refine the proposed strategies.

In December, Chattanooga 2.0 released a sobering report about the state of public education, hoping it would serve as a call to action. Data in the report show 60 percent of kindergartners are not arriving ready to learn, by third grade 60 percent of students are also not reading on grade level and only one in 20 county students attends an exceptional or high-performing school.

Sixty-five percent of Hamilton County School graduates fail to earn any training, certificate or degree program within six years after graduation, making them unqualified for a majority of the county's livable-wage jobs.

Since the release of the report, the school system has faced tumultuous months after the pool-cue rape of an Ooltewah High School freshman during his team's basketball trip. The handling of the situation caused many across the community to voice distrust in the school system, and in March, former Superintendent Rick Smith resigned from the helm. He was replaced by Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly, and the board is expected to start the search for the district's next leader in coming months.

Leaders of Chattanooga 2.0 say despite these challenges, a swell of support has galvanized around improving schools, and they hope this road map will move the community to further action.

"People want better; the challenge is getting people to buy into different," said Jared Bigham, coordinator of Chattanooga 2.0.

The 10 strategies outlined in the roadmap span from birth to career and are intended to be interwoven.

Aggressive metrics have been set to evaluate progress and hold the work accountable, and sub-metrics will be tracked publicly to ensure all demographics are benefiting from this work. If the goals of the roadmap are met, Hamilton County will hold a more prosperous future for everyone, as every adult worker will receive an average raise of $4,500 and 8,000 adults will be brought out of poverty, according to Chattanooga 2.0 leaders.

Underpinning the work of these strategies is the need to involve minority and predominantly poor populations in the work, and equipping them to have a voice. One key way this will happen is through the newly reestablished Interfaith Council, which is dedicated to helping parents become effective and sophisticated advocates for their student's education, said Warren Logan, president of the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga and a member of the Chattanooga 2.0 leadership team.

The 10 strategies:

Early childhood

- Specific focus is being placed on connecting parents and families with the information and support they need to create the best start for the county's youngest residents. Plans are underway to provide parents with resources about infant health and development, along with expanding screenings and treatment for issues affecting these kids. Expanding the city's home visitation program, Baby University, is also included.

- To help with this work, an "early learning network" will be created to boost the percentage of students entering kindergarten ready to school from about 40 percent to 80 percent by 2025. The network will provide more scholarships for quality early childhood education, expand access to high-quality childcare and track outcomes of these programs as students move throughout their first years of school.


- Plans are in progress to encourage teacher innovation, incorporate more technology into every school and work to spread innovative approaches across the district.

- A student's reading proficiency by third grade is the single-most important predictor of high school graduation and career success, so a large focus is being placed on implementing guided reading, increasing reading support in the district's lowest performing schools and ensuring that educators will be offered quality literacy lab professional development.

- Preparing, recruiting and retaining the best teachers is also a priority. Research shows that a teacher is the most important in-school factor impacting a student's academic achievement. Strategies include expanding opportunities for teacher leadership, strengthening teacher prep programs, better supporting new teachers and recruiting top talent by using an external partner to revamp the district's recruiting strategy.

- An emphasis will also be put on empowering school leaders, increasing principal support and granting schools more autonomy.

- Ensuring high expectations and equity for all students is critical to this work, and the district says it will focus on placing highly effective teachers and principals in the lowest-performing schools, increasing the focus on literacy and implementing community school models.

- The district also plans to better prepare all students for college and careers by increasing the amount of counselors in every middle and high school and ensuring students are prepared for the rigor of post-secondary work after graduation. Plans are also underway to increase businesses partnerships in schools, and create seamless pathways from high school to post-secondary learning.

College and Career

- Currently, less than half of Hamilton County school graduates who enroll in a program earn a degree or certificate within six years of leaving high school. Plans are in place at Chattanooga State Community College and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to improve retention rates. There is also a push to increase wrap-around support for first-generation college students - such as transportation or housing - and help students take advantage of the state's scholarship opportunities like Tennessee Promise.

- The final strategy involves connecting Hamilton County residents with high demand jobs by creating a job portal that provides hiring projections and aligning post-secondary degree and certificate programs with the community's highest-demand careers. Another goal is to help adults by connecting them to grants or scholarships allowing them to finish their education at no cost.

Chattanooga 2.0 leaders hope to take a geographical group of low-performing schools - elementary, middle and high schools that feed into each other - and implement all of these strategies at once. This holistic approach will be tailored to the needs and strengths of that community and affect things inside and outside the classroom, which leaders believe will bring dramatic improvement to student and workforce outcomes.

Bigham said he regrets the current list of strategies does not include the county's special needs population and hopes strategies tailored to these kids will be included as the work continues.

"This is a first step. This is not the be all and end all," he said, adding that community engagement and feedback will always be a fundamental part of Chattanooga 2.0's work.

Along those lines, Steele said he hopes the group's work will be better informed by the county's under-served populations and that their voices will be represented even more in the future.

"This work needs to share their view," he said.

Leaders of Chattanooga 2.0 say they will realign existing school funding and ensure money is being used to achieve the best outcomes. Work on several of the strategies is already in place and funded by the school district or private money, and several of the strategies include ramping up programs that have proven to be effective.

Chattanooga 2.0 also expects to raise private money. But private funds will be just a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of public funds given to the school system, Morgan said.

"I think we are going to need some additional private investment capital," she said. "It will help provide the opportunity, the fuel for the work that will be new."

But money is just the spark, Morgan said, and it's the community working together that will make the strategies work and bring lasting change.

Hamilton County Board of Education Chairman Steve Highlander said he supports the strategies presented by 2.0.

"We are very appreciative of everyone helping us," Highlander said. "[The school board] cannot do it all alone."

When it comes to voting to provide funding for certain strategies or change policy, Highlander noted that he cannot make those decisions alone and it will be up to the nine baord members, who have each shown varying degrees of support to the initiative.

"A lot of these [strategies] aren't going to involve board approval," Highlander acknowledged, adding, "and I personally am going to be open to many of these things when they come."

Kelly said the district is already in the process of implementing several strategies, and welcomes the support and vision of Chattanooga 2.0.

"We are already doing some good work and we are wanting to get better," Kelly said.

Chattanooga 2.0 leaders say they hope to see even more community partnerships make the road map's goals a reality. Plans are underway to include churches, social service agencies, individuals and organizations that serve city and county youth.

"The scope [of this work] touches almost everybody in this community," said Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation.

Morgan said undertaking generational work like this takes strength, endurance and urgency, and members of the community are already raising their hands to help.

"Nobody has been waiting for 'Ready, set, go,'" Morgan said. "People are already saying, 'Let's do this.'"

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.