Opinion: Howard is a microcosm of our hardest school struggles

Staff file photo by Olivia Ross / Howard students talk to school board member Faye Robinson during a recess on Thursday. With Howard at 180% capacity, Howard students, teachers and parents gathered at the Hamilton County school board meeting to call attention to the issue.

What seems like "the perfect storm" for Howard School is on us -- taxpayers, parents, school board members and officials of Hamilton County.

On Sunday, the Chattanooga Times Free Press chronicled Howard's fall from being the county's "oldest and most historically significant" high school athletics program to one now on the brink of "fading into extinction."

The school that once produced an unprecedented streak of four consecutive undefeated football seasons from 1959 to 1962, can now barely field a too-small team.

And the reason is a combination of things -- all of which lead right to all of us and to our school leaders.

Howard School is outrageously overcrowded -- hamstrung by district paralysis that in our view borders on discriminatory. In sports, it also is hindered by the stubborn, tone-deaf Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association's rule system.

In its first 155 years, Howard had a primarily Black student body. Now, over the past four years it's enrollment has swollen to nearly 1,600, primarily with an influx of about about 900 Hispanic students -- mostly Guatemalan, and mostly uninterested in high school football or baseball.

Meanwhile, TSSAA classifies school sports teams based on total school enrollment, and it has put Howard in the tougher competition bracket with other enormous schools, even while Howard's football team is so small many players can never leave the field.

But that's just the beginning of Howard's "perfect" debilitating storm.

Last week, we brought you a story about Howard students and staff protesting overcrowding issues there during a Hamilton County school board meeting. Some of the nearly 1,600 students (at a school rated for 854) are having to eat on the cafeteria floor. Others are waiting in line for food so long they have to trash their lunch before eating it because the bell is ringing them back to class.

Another 300 to 400 students are late every morning simply because of busing delays -- again a problem of the school's overcapacity, as well as the district's bus driver shortage.

And did we mention that the school has a "no hoodies" and "no lockers access" policy?

Do students on Signal Mountain have to carry their books around all day because they can't use the lockers there? Do students at East Hamilton have to shiver because they can't wear sweatshirt jackets? But we digress.

District officials deflected the student's overcrowding concerns when they filled up the school board meeting room in mid-November.

We're working on it, was the best way to sum up Superintendent Justin Robertson's response.

He added that their "temporary" fixes -- like finding extra rooms in the middle school next door -- were symptoms of a bigger problem. A school board member raised the R-word -- a rezoning need. Rezoning, as you know, makes parents, teachers and alums draw up in knots and scream, "NOooo."

Some months before, in August and September, we wrote a lot about school scores, and some school officials -- one school board member in particular -- blamed the growing number of non-English language speakers putting "a burden" on teachers.

But is was just more deflection. Howard has been on state's "priority schools list -- along with Calvin Donaldson, Dalewood Middle, Hardy Elementary, Orchard Knob Elementary and Orchard Knob Middle -- since 2018 -- long before the influx of other languages came to the forefront.

In fact, the school system's spokesman told us as the school year began there were only 102 students more than the year before who were "receiving services" from county school workers to help them with language barriers. Systemwide, he said, about about 3,596 of Hamilton County's 45,000 students needed extra help learning to speak and work in English.

This brings us back to the real issue at hand -- not just for Howard students, but for all of our students: School facilities.

The facilities planning meeting -- the one we've been avoiding for years because it includes rezoning and tax dollars -- is now set for just after Thanksgiving on Nov. 28 at 5:30 p.m. at 3074 Hickory Valley Road.

Don't draw up and yell no. These students need our help.

Jon Johnson, Howard's dean of students and the baseball team's head coach, summed up the problems well with his analysis of Howard's changing sports legacy and the effect it has on students.

"The result of a prolonged competitive imbalance in athletics is that motivation to play wanes, particularly among innercity kids," Johnson said. "The next step is that an activity that keeps some of those kids interested in school loses its motivation, so whatever those students could become is never realized.

"As a coach, part of your job is to be a motivator. But there's only so much motivation you can push before kids begin to lose hope, and we have kids now who are coming from circumstances that are challenging already, so they need to feel that hope that they can be competitive or else it's much easier to just quit."

If any of our students quit and fail, all of us quit and fail. We can't let that happen.