Mardee Miller stood in the middle of the newly renovated gym at the old Howard Middle School on Tuesday afternoon. Surrounding her were dozens of sixth graders, new students about to start at the Howard Connect Academy.
In an effort to rid them of some of the nerves that go along with being 11-year-olds at a new school, Miller, the school's founding principal, worked to get the students excited.
She jumped up and down as she played music and introduced each of Howard Connect's "learning designers" — better known as teachers — and showed the kids pictures of what the old, closed school building looked like.
Mostly, Miller emphasized the opportunity that the kids and Howard Connect's faculty have this school year — the opportunity to create their dream school.
"This is our opportunity to build the school that we want to go to," Miller, former administrator for Oak Ridge Schools, said Tuesday. "This is the best part. We get to have the school that we want. Nobody came before us."
A community vision
The original Howard Middle School building, which is connected to the high school that shares a name, was shuttered in 2009 when the school board voted to close the school and the 21st Century Academy to help balance its budget.
The decision was a controversial one among community members, who felt the board was unfairly picking on the predominantly black community.
Students who would have attended the school were dispersed to Dalewood and Orchard Knob middle schools and East Lake Academy.
But in 2017, the building got another chance.
New Superintendent Bryan Johnson included the renovation and reopening of Howard Middle School as a magnet school in a capital building plan, which was unanimously approved by the board.
The $3 million of renovations needed to get the school up and running was part of $8 million total allocated in that 2017 plan to renovate the middle school and build The Howard School a new track and football stadium.
With the help of a $240,000 grant from the Benwood Foundation, community and school district leaders have been working to design what could be described as a revolutionary and innovative way of approaching middle school.
This week Johnson said the changes are very exciting.
"We've had a lot of growth in that school community over the last two years," he said. "What's happened inside that building from the standpoint of that renovations is amazing."
He added: "As we look at school environments going forward and course options, we want to stay at the leading edge in terms of options and opportunities. Howard Connect is one of those schools that will allow us to do that."
Passion and purpose
It will take Howard Connect students a little bit of time to get used to the vocabulary at the school this year.
Instead of homeroom, they have "base camp," and instead of teachers, they are "learning designers."
Students will spend almost three hours on some days in a large learning lab with up to four adults, listening to lectures, doing activities and working in small groups on projects.
Students will complete 30-day challenges on a rotating schedule through six "discoveries," or what some schools call electives.
The "imagination discovery" will include visual and culinary arts content, the "action discovery" will be the school's physical education class that takes place in the gym and the "exploration discovery" will include working with a NASA education program in the school's STEM lab.
Miller said each of the discoveries is intended to help students learn something about themselves. She hopes they will achieve a goal or a passion by the time they leave Howard Connect.
"One of the things that our community said is that they want our kids to be prepared for whatever comes next," Miller said. "Our goal of discoveries is that when they are done, they have an idea of what pathway they might want to take in high school or for their career that they discover passion and possibilities."
Many of the teachers who are helping launch the school are highly regarded and from across the district: Scott Rosenow, who launched the Volkswagen eLab at Hixson Middle School; David Tad Russell, a former science teacher at Soddy-Daisy Middle School; and John Echols, who spent 17 years teaching at the Chattanooga High School Center for Creative Arts.
The school is only launching with one grade this year — 150 students. Miller said she knows the challenges facing her as the middle school scales up, adding a grade level and expanding for the next two years.
While most of the students at Howard Connect attended elementary schools such as East Lake, Calvin Donaldson and Battle Academy, the school is an open enrollment school. Any Hamilton County student can apply to attend, just like the process at other magnet schools. As of the beginning of August, the school has a wait list.
Miller and other district officials say making sure the student population is representative of the community the school serves was a priority.
"It was super important in the design of the school that we will always serve a diverse community," Miller said. "And we will always serve children of the Howard community."
District Chief of Innovation and Choice Jill Levine, formerly the chief of the Opportunity Zone that houses Howard and 11 of the district's other highest-needs schools, said that was part of the community's goals for the school.
Over the past two years, Hamilton County district leaders held multiple community meetings, met with stakeholders and even fifth-graders at Battle Academy and other schools to hear what they wanted to see in a school.
Miller said most of all, she and her 16-person faculty want to communicate that "this school is really for kids."
Connected learning, connected community, connected relationships
The school is modeled after the concept of "design thinking," which refers to the cognitive, strategic and practical processes by which design concepts are developed.
The design team brainstormed five principles around which to center the school, Miller said: authentic learning, fostering curiosity, collaboration, equity and love and joy.
Miller said the staff wants to cultivate those 21st century "soft skills" that are so in demand by employers, such as critical thinking, grit, hard work and creativity.
"Everything we do in this building is filtered through at least one of those principles," she said. "If it doesn't align with those, then we go back and rethink them."
Justin Robertson, chief of schools for the district, said Howard Connect represents the district's goal of changing the way educators think about middle school. He thinks the community also had an appetite for it.
"The biggest thing that speaks to the desire for a different approach at the middle school level is [the school's] already at capacity in terms of magnet applications," Robertson said. "That's a really positive data point."
Everything in place at the beginning of the school year at Howard Connect is designed to be flexible, Levine said.
"When we think about 21st century learners and even the new learners of this decade, this is the kind of school that we need to create," she said. "Everything is flexible from the walls, to the furniture, to the choices that students make. Its designed for flexible learning and creative learning. Mardee and the team have blended the best of both worlds, taking state standards and figuring out how to capture students' engagement."
Miller also acknowledges that many of the students might come in behind grade level in reading or math. The students in Howard's neighborhoods traditionally perform worse on state assessments than some of their peers, and in Hamilton County as a whole only about a third of students can read on grade level in third grade.
More support for math and reading intervention is already built into Howard Connect's schedule for every student, Miller said.
She said she isn't concerned about student success — she knows students will be successful this school year, and she's excited for it, she said.
"Our goals are to create connected learning, connected communities, connected relationships," Miller said. "If at the end of the year, we can say that we really feel like we did that, it'll be a successful year."