New Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson answered questions and shared his vision for the Hamilton County Department of Education with parents and community members during a welcome reception at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center on Tuesday evening.
Before Johnson spoke, Michelle Dunn, a local parent and a teacher, said she hoped those who were skeptical of Johnson's leadership left with surety that he would be a good fit.
"When he was first interviewed, I saw that he was receptive and open to finding new ideas so that the community doesn't feel alone," Dunn said. "I'm hoping they see what I saw."
But Margaret Moore, a local mother, had a much bleaker experience with the Hamilton County school system. She has a 16-year-old son who is blind, and she doesn't think he's been given a fair chance in his education.
"I hope he listens to parents and makes sure students get the education they deserve," she said.
As the reception began, Johnson, a career educator, opened his speech by telling the audience what he's learned in the 12 days he's been in Chattanooga.
"Chubby Checker wrote a song called 'The Twist.' I believe he was referencing the ride up to Signal Mountain," he said as the audience broke out in laughter.
"He definitely has a sense of humor, and I say he's really smart, too," said Jared Bigham, executive director for Chattanooga 2.0. "I look forward to his leadership."
Johnson took time to recognize the successes of Hamilton County students and teachers over the past school year and summer before acknowledging that the district has its work cut out with five schools, known as priority or iZone schools, ranking in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide, as well as 11 that are on the cusp of becoming priority schools.
"We want to have a world-class school system," Johnson said. "We want every student to have an opportunity to be successful. We have a goal to be the fastest-improving school district in the state of Tennessee."
One of the goals Johnson said he plans to chase "aggressively" is improving communication with parents and engaging the community. He said he wants to get information out there in people's hands so they know exactly what is happening across the school system.
That communication will also apply to his strategic plan for success and the goals that will be set for each aspect of the plan.
"Our board will hold us accountable, and we'll report to them on how we are performing in those areas," he said, adding that that those reports will be available to the community. "We want you to know how we are performing."
Johnson noted that not every target may be met, "but we're going to stretch ourselves and when we don't meet our targets, we're going to talk about the plan we have to move to the next level," he said.
Once Johnson finished talking about his plans for the future of the district, he turned to answer questions. Parents and community members wrote their questions on index cards for Johnson to answer. Those he didn't have time to answer will be posted on Chattanooga 2.0's website, chatt2.org, over the next few weeks, said Bigham.
Questions ranged from the light-hearted "How do you spend a relaxing Saturday home alone?" to the more serious "How do you plan to bring equity to Hamilton County schools?"
Johnson said his plan to bring equity to the district's schools involves providing every student with opportunities for success. Leaders need to look at what programs are being offered and how they are being implemented, as well as appealing to students' interests, he said.
"When you start getting to the heart of students' interests, students start to come to school, students start to make good grades," he said. "It's about finding where their interests are and how we can give them access to their interests."
By the end of Johnson's speech, Moore said she feels "very optimistic" about his leadership.
"He really made a point to talk about including every student and making sure all children have an opportunity," she said, emphasizing the word "all," as she held her son's hand. "I have to give him a chance."
As for his responses to what he does on a lazy Saturday home alone, Johnson said, "Thinking about how much I miss my beautiful wife." And of course, flipping the channel between HGTV and ESPN, he said.
Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.