Cooper: Shaping the school district

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson, center, in his first six months on the job, has attempted to shape up the district with a rebranding, an emphasis on career institutions and a staff reorganization.

Nearly six months into his tenure as superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, Dr. Bryan Johnson has attempted to apply a stamp of action, boldness and change.

In seeking to move the district into the future, he appears to have left behind administrations that meant well but were unable to progress toward a system that prepared all students toward meaningful post-graduate lives and careers.

How it will play out remains to be seen, but we believe a focus on change offers the best opportunity to move ahead.

Last week, while students were enjoying their holiday breaks, Johnson announced three major steps. The district is to be rebranded as The Public Schools of Hamilton County, the concept of Future Ready Institutes in each county high school was unveiled, and a staff reorganization was made.

» We understand the district's desire for a new superintendent and that superintendent's new plans to mean a new day for Hamilton County Schools, but we don't believe a new name will move one student's performance from poor to stellar, assist any student with no parents at home and few resources, or change the character of any school where most of the teachers have received poor ratings.

Still, if a name change can lift the spirit of a district out of a recent past that has seen low test scores, lawsuits, secession threats, state reprimands and a partial state intervention, we don't see a downside. However, we're glad the district has not had to pay the advertising agency that is assisting with the rebranding. We don't believe, after all, county residents are unclear about which are public and which are private schools, which flourish in the area with some 20 percent of county students.

The Hamilton County Board of Education must vote on the name change at its next board meeting.

» The Future Ready Institutes offer a sort of rebranding as well. As Johnson himself acknowledged, all county high schools already have career and technical education courses, and many of them have specific academies geared toward one or more industries.

But the superintendent, acknowledging that Chattanooga area business leaders have said they often are unable to fill living-wage jobs with local graduates, said the new concept will have the individual student and the post-graduate world in mind.

"Our goal as a district," Johnson said, "is to have our graduates post-secondary ready, and if we aren't getting them there then we are missing the mark. We don't educate our students in isolation; we need to educate students with an eye focused on where they will be when they graduate."

Perhaps most significantly, but also trepidatiously, the district plans to open each academy to all students. If the academies are to remain in each school, this is the correct move, but transportation problems could abound. State law only says "boards of education may provide school transportation facilities," but it also says "all pupils within a county shall be provided equal opportunity to attend school with any other pupil transported at public expense."

Many in the county, including this page, have advocated a comprehensive career/technical/academies school, but such a facility comes with a tremendous price tag. Meanwhile, Johnson said plans for the Future Ready Institutes are only in their early stages, but creating the buzz for these - and getting the students to them - will be vital. Still, they they have the potential to be a game-changer both for the individual student and the future of jobs in Hamilton County and the surrounding area.

» Johnson's staff reorganization, according to the Hamilton County Department of Education website, will allow members to be better "able to move quickly and efficiently to improve student performance and system efficiency" than did the previous assistant superintendent-based structure. The previous system at points in the past, insiders have said, caused a first-among-equals battle that only promoted rivalry.

We're especially glad to see the hiring of Dr. T. Nakia Towns Edwards as the superintendent's chief of staff. The impressive former assistant commissioner of data and research at the Tennessee Department of Education had been a candidate for the Hamilton County superintendent's job earlier this year but, incredibly, did not make the first cut.

Other current leaders and assistant superintendents were named chief schools officer, chief of the Opportunity Zone and chief operations officer, and new placements have been - or will be - made for a chief business officer, chief equity officer and chief talent officer.

Since his hiring, Johnson has said he wants Hamilton County to be "the fastest improving school system in Tennessee," and we believe most of his moves since his arrival have pointed the district in that direction. But whether the name is the straightforward Hamilton County Schools - or the rebranded Public Schools of Hamilton County - we're like most people in the county. We just want to see improvement.