Chattanooga 2.0: Equity concerns, thriving wages points of focus for Hamilton County students

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Chattanooga Area Chamber Vice President of Talent Initiatives Molly Blankenship addresses the school board about Future Ready Institutes during a meeting on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Five years in, education collaboration Chattanooga 2.0 has pulled in scores of industry leaders, parents, administrators and community members alike to accomplish one main objective - to find equitable solutions to support local students from cradle to career.

And in 2021, as Executive Director Molly Blankenship looks back, positive strides have been made in student academic growth, early literacy programs and graduation rates.

But she said the work is in no way done.

The organization will continue to strive to meet equity goals across diverse demographics, preparing students for post-secondary completion and equipping the market and students to allow for thriving wages.

"We've come a long way and there's a tremendous amount of work to be proud of and to celebrate," Blankenship said. "But given the challenges and opportunities that are ahead, and also taking into account the context that 2020 created, impacts of COVID-19, impacts of a nationwide reckoning with racial justice, we know that our work today is more important and more urgent than ever before."

When the group formed in 2015-2016 as a collaboration among the Benwood Foundation, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, Hamilton County Schools and the Public Education Foundation, it looked to pave a future of economic community growth that focused on increasing literacy rates, investing in teachers, promoting leadership skills and preparing students for college and/or careers through cross-sector partnerships.

In 2016, an article by the Times Free Press outlined that the organization aspired to make the city of Chattanooga "the smartest in the South" after it released a "sobering" report detailing statistics that pointed to a general lack of classroom and career preparedness across the school district.

Chattanooga 2.0 is now hosting a public, virtual event on Thursday, Jan. 21, at 10 a.m. to release a new report to showcase the coalition and the district's successes as well as areas that need continued focus and growth.

According to Blankenship and the report, the organization marks many specific successes, including Hamilton County Schools being named Tennessee's fastest-improving school district in 2019 and an $11 million investment by the system in a new literacy curriculum. The years also saw the development of Future Ready Institutes and other initiatives to provide career and college-focused education.

And as the coalition looks to the future, the report outlines major goals to raise five key markers across all demographics in the local public school system by 2030.

These include:

- Increasing kindergarten readiness from 40.1% to 80%

- Increasing third-grade reading proficiency from 36.1% to 80%

- Increasing the percentage of college and career-ready graduates from 37.2% to 80%

- Increasing post-secondary attainment within six years from 35% to 80%

- Doubling the number of 18- to 25-year-olds earning a thriving wage

The report also features Chattanooga 2.0's first equity scoreboard, intended to provide the community with a stronger idea of where achievement gaps lie, many of which Blankenship said start before students are even in kindergarten. The report shows that, across the aforementioned metrics, students of color are falling 13-30% behind their white counterparts.

"We are at a moment in time where we have an urgent imperative both morally and economically to address historical racial inequities that exist within our education and our work systems and our community overall," Blankenship said, "We will not get to the ultimate goal line that we're trying to reach if we don't start by meeting the needs and addressing the challenges to those who are furthest from it."

Another major focus is to seek thriving wages for students in their first few years out of high school. The report defines a "thriving wage" as "the annual income needed for a single 18-to-25-year-old to live and contribute to a thriving economy in our county," which falls at $32,000.

"We have a specific strategy dedicated to engaging with employers in the community, overall, making sure that employers and the community and economy are ready to receive the graduates that we're preparing for those high-quality jobs," Blankenship said.

"We recognize that we can't just focus on one side of the pipeline. We've got to focus on both supply and demand and work with employers in that way to make sure that we have pathways that students can access to reach those thriving wage jobs."

And as Chattanooga 2.0 moves into the next phase of its existence, one factor will remain foundational for Blankenship - its sense of and dependency on community.

"It will take everyone working together to reach our shared vision and to have the impact that we're hoping to achieve," Blankenship said. "Chattanooga 2.0 has since its launch been a community-wide movement where everyone has a part to play in supporting the work that will improve outcomes and change the odds for children and families in Hamilton County."

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