Signal Mountain Middle/High School emergency exit highlights communication issue

Signal Mountain Middle/High School emergency exit highlights communication issue

January 10th, 2018 by Myron Madden in Community Signal Mountain

Signal Mountain Vice Mayor Dick Gee, left, and Mayor Chris Howley, right, listen as Councilwoman Amy Speek asks a question during a meeting between the Signal Mountain Town Council and the Hamilton County Board of Education at Nolan Elementary on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. Signal Mountain officials and members of the board discussed the town's consideration of splitting from the Hamilton County school system to form their own independent district. (Staff Photo by Doug Strickland)

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Since the town of Signal Mountain began considering a split from Hamilton County Schools a little more than a year ago, some backing the move have cited neglect from the county as one of the motives to break away.

During a joint meeting between the Signal Mountain Town Council, the county school board and other education officials last week, school board member Kathy Lennon suggested that a lack of communication from the county may be more to blame.

"We have to tell our story better," Lennon said. "Because already we're looking at ways to improve."

Lennon illustrated her point after Signal Councilwoman Amy Speek listed a number of issues parents have spoken out about, such as the schools' early start times and the supply fees they are required to pay at registration, which seem to be being ignored by district officials.

Also among the list was the need for a second entrance into Signal Mountain Middle/High School.

In the mornings, SMMHS parents have said, traffic backs up along Timberlinks Drive as cars wait to turn onto Sam Powell Drive, the single road leading into and out of the school's campus.

Aside from lengthy travel times, residents worry the congestion would make it difficult for ambulances and fire engines to reach the school or neighboring homes in the event of an emergency.

"We're in a very dangerous situation here," said Speek. "We live in a day and age where we need to look at that."

But someone already has been investigating the issue, Lennon reported.

Over the last few months, Signal mother Kim Fookes has been working with the school's Parent-Teacher-Student Association and the Hamilton County Department of Education to solve the entryway's traffic flow problem and devise plans for an emergency exit.

Though Fookes said after the meeting that she will not be ready to disclose specifics about the two projects until after county engineers have signed off on them, she noted that the proposed solutions would not be expensive to implement.

Fookes hopes to present her final proposal for the entrance to SMMHS Principal Todd Stinson within a few weeks, and said plans for an emergency exit may follow in a month.

If Stinson gives the proposals a thumbs-up, they will be passed on to Justin Witt, HCDE's director of maintenance and operations, moving up the ladder until they get a final stamp of approval from the county's Department of School Safety. At that point, Fookes said, she will be able to pin down specific costs and start identifying ways to fund the work.

Having overseen exterior projects at Thrasher Elementary School for five years, this will not be the first time Fookes has worked with HCDE. Overall, she said county officials have been responsive when she approached with a request.

"They have always been open-minded and bent over backwards to hear and take the time to examine what we need," Fookes said. "We don't always get what we want because you have to get in line, but they have always listened."

Lennon further accentuated the existence of a communication issue by pointing to another need mentioned during last week's meeting: funding for art teachers.

Currently, the Mountain Education Foundation, which provides financial support to Signal's three schools, foots the bill for a handful of teacher and staff positions not funded by the county, including one of the arts education teachers.

The request for improvements to arts education is not unique to Signal Mountain, Lennon said. While meeting with community members in other parts of the county, enhanced arts programs were a regular item on parents' wish lists.

To address that need countywide, HCDE has appointed former Red Bank Elementary School music teacher Claire Stockman as the district's related arts lead teacher. Stockman's role will be to oversee the arts in all of the county's schools to ensure that every student has a chance to cultivate his or her creativity.

"So some of the things that I think are concerns are already being addressed," Lennon said. "But we're not properly, maybe, telling the story and getting the message out. . I hope that we can start doing a better job of that with the leadership of [Superintendent Bryan] Johnson."