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U.S. Secretary of Education John King listens to concerns of first year principals in the library at Battle Academy on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016.

The nation's highest-ranking education official believes Hamilton County leaders should look for a school superintendent who has high aspirations, and he's on board with Chattanooga 2.0.

U.S. Secretary of Education John King said that, from looking across the country, he's seen it is crucial for new superintendents to be good listeners.

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U.S. Secretary of Education John King, top left, listens to suggestions from area first year principals Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016, in the library at Battle Academy.
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U.S. Secretary of Education John King talks to first year principals Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016, in the library at Battle Academy. King asked the school leaders for suggestions and encouraged them to get back to basics, according to Steve Henry, principal at Soddy-Daisy High School.
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U.S Secretary of Education John King (center) uses body language to drive home a point while talking with first-year principals in the Hamilton County school district Tuesday at Battle Academy.
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Ericka Reyes, a junior at UTC, adds her message to the mural on the side of the Opportunity Across America bus late Tuesday. The U.S. Secretary of Education John King arrived at Battle Academy in the brightly colored bus at 5 p.m.

"One of the critical skills for someone stepping into that role is for them to come in ready to listen, ready to learn from teachers, principals, parents and community members about what the challenges are as they develop an entry plan," King said.

King did plenty of listening himself during a 2 1/2-hour visit to Battle Academy on Tuesday night.

He spent time hearing from 10 first-year principals in the Hamilton County school district and then hosted a panel on teacher leadership during his stop in Chattanooga that was part of his Opportunity Across America 2016 bus tour.

The event was his third of the day after stopping in Bristol and Knoxville.

"I'm certainly impressed and encouraged by the work that's happening across Tennessee to better prepare students for success after they leave high school," King said after the teacher leadership panel. "Certainly, the commitment to college and career readiness shows in a lot of work that's happening in school districts."

King also wanted to know about the challenges facing local education leaders. During a roughly 20-minute sit-down with the first-year principals, King asked what the department of education can do to help.

"Our job is to make your job easier," he said.

The principals rattled off some of the challenges they face, bringing up the struggles of breaking in large classes of new teachers, to keeping attendance up, to closing the literacy gap for non-English-speaking students and simply changing a school's culture from negative to positive.

King then shared advice with them from his time as a principal, recalling how he wanted to fix all his school's problems at once.

He encouraged the principals to develop teacher leaders and to get involved with advocating for education policy on the state level to advocate for the changes they wish to see.

"That's sort of the job description," King said later about his time with the principals. "In order to be effective as a leader, you've really got to listen to folks and understand what their concerns and challenges are.

"One of my goals of this tour is, yes, to highlight great things that are happening in schools, but also to learn and try to bring back lessons to Washington about how we can do a better job supporting principals, teachers and district leaders to accomplish our shared goals."

"It was very beneficial," Brown Middle School principal Rashad Williams said. "He gave us some practical things to apply to this profession. To get that kind of engagement from someone at this level who has been at the principal seat, it's very rewarding, encouraging and impactful."

Though the event focused on teacher leadership and King spent time with principals, students were also a part of the stop.

The bell signaling the end of the school day had long since rung, but a group of Battle Academy students playing on the front lawn late in the afternoon were still listening intently to their teachers as King's bus neared the school.

"Is he here? Is he here?" one student asked excitedly in response to a teacher's instructions that it was time to head inside.

"Well, he's on his way," the teacher responded.

Just a few minutes later, King stepped off the bus and was greeted by students cheering and waving pom-poms. Once inside, a school choir greeted him with a chorus.

King then hovered over a table, talking to a group of fourth- and fifth-graders who showed him their robotics projects.

"It is a pleasure to be here with all of you," he then said as he took the stage in the school's gymnasium after presentations from local teachers about their leadership opportunities. "It's inspiring to hear the conversation here in Chattanooga about what's possible in schools by investing in teacher leadership."

King, who has degrees from Harvard, Columbia and Yale, previously served as principal senior adviser in the Department of Education. He assumed the role of secretary of education in March, replacing Arne Duncan, who served in the role for seven years.

He will visit Decatur, Ala., and Memphis on Wednesday, and conclude his bus tour with stops in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.

Though he never delivered a direct endorsement of the Chattanooga 2.0 community initiative that is designed to ready the district's students for Chattanooga's jobs of the future, he offered praise for the community's collaboration.

"I'm inspired by the degree of commitment across constituencies," King said of Chattanooga. "I sometimes visit communities where the business community is not thoroughly the work of the schools. I sometimes visit communities where the leadership of the school system and the political leadership — mayors and county leaders — aren't talking to each other. Here, they clearly are."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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