Chattanooga Prep founders break down how new school will stand apart

Ted and Kelly Alling, co-founders of Chattanooga Prep

Name: Ted Alling

Age: 40

Hometown: Birmingham, Ala.

Occupation: Co-Founder of Lamp Post Group and managing director at Dynamo

Name: Kelly Alling

Age: 40

Birthplace: La Romana, Dominican Republic

Occupation: Former resource manager for Habitat for Humanity

photo Ted and Kelly Alling, co-founders of Chattanooga Prep
Ted and Kelly Alling have a vision for Chattanooga Preparatory School. As founders of the new all-boys charter school, which will open its doors for the first time this month, the couple wants Chattanooga Prep to have more academic growth over the next year than any school in Tennessee. But getting there won't be simple.

Eighty-three percent of the school's 66 enrolled students are one to four grade levels behind in reading and math, according to initial assessments. The gap is yet another symptom of poverty and educational inequity, the Allings say, but they're confident that their institution will give these sixth-grade boys the tools they need to regain the lost ground, then push past even the highest academic expectations as a new grade level is added each year.

Working with community advocates and sister school Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, the couple has been gathering all the ingredients needed to give students their best chance at success. Even so, the Allings know it'll take more than just a rigorous curriculum to make their vision a reality.

Ted: Kelly and I have taken the last two years and traveled to the best charter schools.

Kelly: Not just charter schools!

Ted: [laughs] All the best middle schools and high schools in the country. We've been to New York, Chicago, Kansas City, Atlanta, San Antonio and Los Angeles. So we've been very thoughtful about approaching this.

» We want to develop leaders. We're going to set up parameters around the school, but the boys are going to learn to lead the school, and in turn, they're going to go to college and come back and lead our community.

» Every morning, we serve breakfast and then we have town hall. And the "head boy" will lead town hall. He'll be up there doing the Pledge of Allegiance, taking roll. And if [someone's] not in school, the [student leading homeroom] will go call his mom, like, "Hey, Where's he at? We need him here today." So the kids are in charge. It's not a joke.

» We also want to promote brotherhood. We want this school to have just a mentality of "whatever hurts a brother hurts me." They're going to be very, very bonded. These are friends for life. They're all in it together, they're going to pull each other up, make sure they show up to school, make sure they're doing well.

» One of the ways we're doing that is each boy has a male mentor. A lot of our students don't have a lot of positive male influences in their life, so we've got some mentors who have agreed to serve for seven years until they finish high school.

Kelly: I think what a lot of these boys need is just people to continue to show up. That's why the mentor for seven years is so crucial, because it's not like you get this person in your life for just one year. No, we want consistency in these boys' lives.

Ted: We're talking to the boys about the biggest leaders in their life and a big majority of the kids said their dad was but he was locked up in prison. They said he's a big leader in [their] life and [that their dad] is writing them from prison and encouraging them to stay in school.

» You hear an 11-year-old boy say that and it's hard to relate. It's hard for Kelly and I to relate. But we've got such an incredible team of educators that have dedicated their lives to this demographic.

» We've been super-fortunate and lucky. We've recruited - we're calling it "the dream team of sixth-grade teachers." We have an ELA teacher from Boston. She's amazing. Our principal is actually from Kansas City. Our dean of students is from Atlanta. So we're bringing in some really great talent into the school.

Kelly: On Fridays, the boys will get out early, and the rest of the day they'll do professional development for the teachers. We really want to invest in our teachers and let them know that this is very much a unique family, so to speak, and we're there to support them and give them the tools that they need to be great teachers.

Ted: Also, expeditionary learning is going to be huge for us. We're going to get these boys at an early age, in sixth grade, on college campuses. Tons of college campuses. The bar's going to be set so high for their life by the school, that they're going to rise to it.

Kelly: They're going to graduate as leaders, confident men, and it's going to be a game-changer for this community.

Ted: I feel like the boys know this is their shot. I'm telling you, they're feeling it, just the level and the intensity of the teachers - in a good way. My football coach used to say the team that wants it the most will win, and we want it the most.

Kelly: And [the parents] love it.

Ted: Our information sessions, they come up hugging on us, and they're so grateful.

Kelly: I think the boys are like deer in headlights, like, "Oh, what have we gotten ourselves into?" [laughs]

Ted: 'Cause their parents are so excited. [laughs] We've heard them say, "My kid's really smart. He just hasn't been pushed hard enough." Don't worry about that. He's going to be pushed.

Kelly: They have incredible parents to really take a risk on us, though, too. It really goes both ways.

Ted: Yeah, they're sending their kid to a school where the building's not [completely] built yet! [laughs]

Kelly: There's no windows in this building! What's going on?! [laughs] But, seriously, they're taking a chance on this vision as well. So we don't want to let them down either.

Ted: We think our school is also going to lift the tide of other schools. We feel strongly that we're going to get great results, and we hope that has a ripple effect on a lot of other schools in Chattanooga. [Show them] that below average is not good enough. We're going to demand excellence [at our school], and hopefully, we'll get excellent results.

Kelly: It's hard work, but it's good work. You gotta put your all into this. There's a lot of details and this is a huge, huge need. When we start to struggle and we start to hit obstacles, we look back at why we decided to do this - and then you see [the boys] walking through these doors and asking questions and I'm like, "This is why we're doing it. You deserve the same opportunities as everybody else, and you're going to get it."