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District 6 Commissioner Joe Graham

The gap between what schools pump out in their graduates and what businesses want in their employees may shrink with the addition of a new Southeast Tennessee program aimed at boosting career and technical education.

The Southeast Tennessee Pathways to Prosperity will work with teachers in Hamilton, Bradley, Marion and McMinn counties. The program, funded through a state grant, first will focus on beefing up preparation for advanced manufacturing and information technology careers.

The whole idea is to get high school graduates ready for jobs that need to be filled. Organizers say the program should especially appeal to those who may not think a four-year college degree is attainable. With more preparation in high school, they'll be more able to directly enter careers, certificate programs or colleges.

"It's unfair to the educational community to say we don't like the outcome but we're not going to give you resources to change it," said Ronna-Renee Jackson, a facilitator the county hired to complete a three-month grant application and planning process for the program.

Hamilton County Schools, local businesses, Public Education Foundation and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce supported the project in its infancy. And now that the program has received a $223,000 grant from the Tennessee Department of Education, it will hire several part- and full-time employees.

On Thursday, Jackson gave an update to the Hamilton County Commission, which earlier appropriated $35,000 for the planning stage of Pathways to Prosperity.

Some commissioners wondered whether the grant-funded program would be sustainable, though most were optimistic that it would beef up vocational education across the area.

"This is a way of putting a piece of a technical school in every school," Commissioner Joe Graham said.

But schools already are asked to do so much, especially with the current transition to the Common Core standards, a rewrite of what's expected for students. Commissioner Tim Boyd said he is skeptical that teachers could change to those more rigorous academic standards, while also implementing new career-minded programs.

"I don't see how in the world they can meet Common Core criteria and do this at the same time without adding faculty and overhead," he said.

Officials said this new rollout will be good for students across the region. But it's poised to especially help urban and poor students, whose academic performance so often falls behind.

"Much of our urban community doesn't know what's possible," said Superintendent Rick Smith. "They don't know what's out there for them."

City Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem said the communitywide effort is poised to bring Chattanooga back "to the good ol' days."

"And what I mean by that is that historically I've seen in this community where city, county, state, federal leaders -- if it's something that's meaningful in this community -- we've been able to put all that other stuff aside so that we can move together on that issue," he said. "And we found recently that there's a lot of people that have great interest in this."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or 423-757-6249.