Thursday's forum focuses on challenges, realities facing Hamilton County schools

Thursday's forum focuses on challenges, realities facing Hamilton County schools

July 3rd, 2016 by Emmett Gienapp in Local Regional News

Chattanooga 2.0 director Jared Bigham speaks to area pastors Thursday, January 28, 2016 at Blue Orleans.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Let's talk about education.

With a traumatic school year of shocks behind, a widespread and transformative community initiative at hand and a host of school board elections looming ahead, along with a search for the next school superintendent, there's a lot to talk about.

On Thursday, WRCB and the Chattanooga Times Free Press will host a televised discussion about the Hamilton County school system called "State of Education: A Town Hall Meeting," in which local educators and officials will speak about the challenges and realities facing the system.

If you watch

- What: Town hall discussion of Hamilton County public schools

- When: 7 p.m. Thursday on WRCB-Channel 3

- Hosts: WRCB and the Chattanooga Times Free Press

- In-studio seating: People who wish to be in the studio audience must reserve seats in advance by emailing Audience members must be there by 6:30 p.m.

The hourlong event will start at 7 p.m. at the WRCB studios and will be broadcast live, free of commercial interruption. Some seats will be set aside for the public but reservations are required.

Dr. Jared Bigham, the coordinator of community initiative Chattanooga 2.0, said he is glad so many stakeholders have expressed interest in dealing with the school system because it affects everyone.

"It doesn't matter if you have a child in a public school or a charter school or a private school," Bigham said. "It doesn't matter if you have no children in school, period. If you're a business owner, if you're in the faith-based community, the entire community is impacted by education."

Jared Bigham is director for Chattanooga 2.0, seen here at the open house event held at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.

Jared Bigham is director for Chattanooga 2.0, seen...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Alison Gerber, editor of the Times Free Press, said, "Improving education is one of the most important and daunting challenges this community faces, and we hope this forum will be a chance to discuss solutions."

The program will be structured as a series of panel discussions in five segments framed around issues essential to the conversation.

Parent and community involvement

A consistent point of contention between administrators and parents who feel disconnected from their children's education, the subject has for years plagued stakeholders wanting to ensure communication and cooperation.

Chattanooga 2.0, a far-reaching movement by local business leaders, educators and politicians to improve the county's public schools, has worked with dozens of community work groups over the last several months to outline the school system's future.

After reviewing community input that poured out during a 100-day planning period, the initiative's coordinators will release a laundry list of suggestions for the county in early August.

On Thursday, Chris Earl, principal at The Howard School, and Edna Varner, a consultant at the Public Education Foundation, will help direct this portion of the program.

Recruiting teachers

With roughly 42,000 students, Hamilton County Schools has a challenging task to find and retain skilled teachers able to effectively work with students as part of the largest single workforce in the county.

Teachers who perform well are being retained at higher rates, while those who do not are increasingly not rehired, but issues of pay and classroom autonomy still present obstacles to attracting talent to the area.

The discussion will be hosted by Elizabeth Crews, executive director of UnifiEd; Kirk Kelly, the acting superintendent, and Valerie Rutledge, dean of education at UTC.

Document: Full Chattanooga 2.0 Report

Read the full Chattanooga 2.0 report here.

Workforce development

An alarming report by Chattanooga 2.0 in December 2015 highlighted that Hamilton County has approximately 15,000 available jobs that are unfilled and unavailable to county residents based on education requirements alone.

That same report said in the coming years, 83 percent of job postings in the county paying a livable wage of at least $35,000 a year are expected to require education past high school and the school system must adapt to help fill the workforce ranks.

The panel for this portion will include David Steele, vice president of policy and education for the Chattanooga Chamber; Brian Robinson, a teacher at Tyner Academy, and Traci Day, vice president at Walden Security.


Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger will help host a discussion about the school system's $417 million budget and funding in general.

This year the County Commission boosted the HCDE budget by nearly $12 million in combined local and state funding. Public education comprises 62 percent of the 2016-17 county budget, not including 3 percent set-aside to pay off debt from new school construction.

A recurring suggestion within the community has been to move to a student-based funding model instead of the current facility-based model, a move that supporters argue would give teachers and principals more autonomy over their budgets.

Alternatives to zoned schools

Between private schools, charter schools and other options, parents face difficult choices when it comes to their child's education.

Several advocates for education reform in Hamilton County have argued that parents must have options, but opportunities offered by each school should be equitable across the board so parents aren't forced to make a decision based on quality of education alone.

The discussion will include remarks from Dr. Elaine Swafford, executive director for the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, and Bill Stacy, a former UTC chancellor and Baylor headmaster.

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfree or 423-757-6731.