Hamilton County students welcomed back for the first day of school

Staff Photo by Olivia Ross / Students arrive at Dalewood Middle School on Wednesday for the first day of school.
Staff Photo by Olivia Ross / Students arrive at Dalewood Middle School on Wednesday for the first day of school.

By 7:25 a.m. Wednesday, the sixth grade hall at Dalewood Middle School was empty and quiet after the last students were directed to their classroom.

In social studies teacher Deonte Jackson's class, students placed their hands in the middle of a circle to form a human knot as part of an icebreaker exercise.

Next door, students in Whitney Whitaker's English language arts class worked quietly as they filled out a questionnaire about themselves and what they were looking forward to in sixth grade.

And down the hall, science teacher Kaleigh Guess' students attempted to stack cups without using their hands. They were given a rubber band and yarn to complete the task.

Most of the 44,500 students enrolled in Hamilton County Schools returned to the classroom Wednesday. At Dalewood Middle, the first two days are focused on building connections between students and teachers. Academics will start on the third day.

"We really want middle school students to feel the joy of coming to school and being connected," Principal Rashaad Williams said in an interview. "Middle school is that area where disconnection can happen so easily. So we're being real intentional in middle school around making sure our students feel connected and that they know we care."

Dalewood Middle is one of five schools affected by the zoning changes approved by the Hamilton County school board in February. Williams called the rezoning plan, which is expected to add roughly 120 students previously zoned for East Ridge Middle to his school, a "great benefit."

"It continues our growth in reference to diversity. Right now, with all our students in the building, we speak about five languages," he said. "All of our students are learning to interact with one another, people from different cultures. And considering the world is a diverse place, we're ensuring that our students are prepared to take on the world once they leave our walls."


The plan also moved East Ridge High students living north of Interstate 24 and Hixson High students living south of the Tennessee River to Brainerd High School. The rezoning is an effort by the district to relieve overcrowding as both East Ridge High and East Ridge Middle were over 100% capacity last year, while Brainerd High and Dalewood Middle had room to spare.

(READ MORE: A guide for Hamilton County families as students head back to the classroom)

About an hour and a half later, high school students at Tyner Academy gathered in the gym, where they collected their class schedules and listened to Principal Tiffany Earvin lead a pep rally.

As music played as a backing track, she told students that this year, they're all about one thing: securing the B.A.G. aka behavior, attendance and grades.

"Last year, Tyner's 2023 class earned $10.2 million in scholarships, and so we want to make sure that we exceed that this year," Earvin said in an interview. "The way to do that, honestly, is to make sure we're taking care of behavior needs, focusing in on our student attendance and making sure they have the grades and are learning the information."

As Earvin talked to the freshman class before dismissing the ninth graders for their first day of high school, she reiterated those expectations.

"Today will be a great day of learning. Keep in mind this is ninth grade. Every one of you has a 4.0 GPA, but it's up to you to keep it," Earvin told the students gathered on the gym bleachers. "This is swim or swim. There is no sink because we're not going to let you, but you've got to work with us."

Some of those ninth graders will also be part of the One Chattanooga Institute of Early Care and Learning's inaugural cohort. The program, Tyner's fourth future-ready institute, gives students on-the-job training at child care centers and allows them to graduate with their child development associate certification. It aims to help address the shortage of early childhood educators in Hamilton County.

Both Earvin and Williams said one of the focuses going into the new year was personalization, especially building student-to-student and student-to-teacher relationships. At Tyner, one way that takes form is an hour on Fridays dedicated to clubs and mentoring through community partnerships. Similarly, at Dalewood Middle, every student will have a staff member assigned to them as a mentor.

Williams, who is entering his fourth year as Dalewood Middle's principal, said the pandemic taught him the importance of connection.

"We were forced to disconnect, and I saw the impacts of that with students no longer being able to properly socially connect," he said. "I've learned how important it is for us to be intentional around connection with students. It had its impact, and so we want to make sure that we can limit some of those bad residual effects."

Contact Shannon Coan at scoan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.

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