A partnership between two historic Chattanooga institutions — a church and a school — soon will offer a new education option for students in the city's worst-performing schools.
This fall, Chattanooga Christian School and Olivet Baptist Church will launch The King School, a K-5 private school on the church's grounds off M.L. King Boulevard.
The venture, leaders say, is meant to provide more quality education options to students for whom a private school education is unattainable and to increase educational equity in Chattanooga.
But as the school and church recruit and launch, it could pull students — and funding — from struggling local public schools and deepen the public/private divide in education.
"We want to provide an additional option," Chad Dirkse, president of Chattanooga Christian School, said. "Evidence says that families desire educational equity and that the more options they have, the better off they are."
The school's tuition — $6,500 per year — is less than CCS's more-than-$10,000-per-year rate and is intended to make the school more accessible to low-income families.
In its first year, the school will launch with just two classes of 12 students each — one kindergarten class and one first-grade class.
Dirkse and Chris Sands, youth pastor at Olivet and one of the leaders of the initiative, characterize the joint effort as an "unlikely partnership."
"The mere fact that this is growing together, how we can collaborate together to build up strong children is amazing," Sands said. "To see a school emerge in the M.L. King area is amazing."
Sands said the school's mission is to build prepared, young leaders.
"When you know who you are and whose you are, you can impact a generation," Sands said. "We want to build young leaders, young kings and queens, who no matter where they go, public, private, CCS, anywhere, will be able to be leaders and stand out."
The school plans to do that through small class sizes, low student-to-faculty ratios, engaging curriculum and extracurricular opportunities.
The curriculum will mirror what is offered at Chattanooga Christian, and students will even visit that campus to use the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) laboratory and collaborate with other students. Teachers at The King School will be recruited by Chattanooga Christian and will have the same professional development opportunities as CCS teachers.
"The King School is essentially providing the same education we have at CCS," Dirkse said.
The microschool model is not a new one. Faith-based microschools have cropped up in inner cities across the nation in recent years, and some of Chattanooga's independent schools also started at the micro level, such as Skyuka Hall and Signal Mountain Christian School.
However, Dirkse said, the collaborative effort between a church and an existing school is unique to the area.
"The idea is that we are working together to reach as many students as possible, too," he said. "What may be unique about this is [that] all of the professional [school] services and infrastructure we have here at CCS get leveraged at the microschool and they bring a particular perspective from their community as a church that has been invested in the fabric and culture of faith of Chattanooga for a long time."
Local partners, including Chattanooga 2.0, have been exploring microschool models, as well as ways to bridge gaps between public and private schools or schools and churches.
"There are multiple opportunities for public/private partnerships in the after-school and summer programming space, and I think there is an understanding by many leaders in the community that a rising tide raises all ships," said Jared Bigham, executive director of Chattanooga 2.0, in a statement. "I think there are two keys: One, that offered support is not seen as benevolence but true partnership, and two, that whatever programs or supports might come from the private education space don't siphon resources from public schools."
Both CCS and Olivet say the vision for The King School has grown over time and through conversations both internally and, then, externally with community partners.
"Internally we have been talking about what it means to be a part of Chattanooga for years," Dirkse said. "Chattanooga Christian, in our 50th year, has been given a unique opportunity. We are at capacity on this campus, we've been able to make significant investments in the school. So how do we be the best neighbor in Chattanooga that we can be?"
The school isn't meant to be a feeder school to Chattanooga Christian, Dirkse emphasized. As of January of this year, CCS had 1,275 students, almost at its 1,300 student capacity. Instead, the goal is to ensure students are "sixth-grade ready."
But the possibility of some students matriculating into other local private schools, rather than back into the public school system, is real. With the loss of public school students comes the loss of that per-pupil funding from the state in public schools.
Many of the students who would be attracted to The King School, members of Olivet's congregation and the community, attend nearby Hamilton County Schools in the Opportunity Zone. Some might be students interested in attending Highland Park's charter schools, Chattanooga Preparatory School and Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, in the future.
Now, families will have to foot the bill for tuition, but both Dirkse and Sands emphasized there is significant opportunity from private investments for scholarships and financial aid.
Dirkse said they would be looking to recruit both families that could pay full tuition and those who would require financial assistance, such as school vouchers.
New Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has voiced support of school vouchers that could allow families to pay for private school education on the state's dime. During a stop at one of Gestamp's Chattanooga plants to talk about workforce development last week, Lee stated that he was in favor of options for families.
"The most important thing is that every child in this state has access to a high quality of education," he said.
State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, introduced a school voucher bill last week that is targeted directly at students in the state's priority schools — Hamilton County has nine — and, if passed, would allow them to attend a public or private school of their choosing.
Possible voucher programs and the potential for more schools like The King School to draw students away from public schools worries county school board member Tiffanie Robinson, of District 4. Robinson represents some of the neighborhoods that The King School might pull from and has six priority schools in her district.
"I am concerned about what the addition of schools like this does to our local school system that is growing and becoming stronger and stronger," Robinson said. "I believe that every child has the right to a great education and parents shouldn't have to have that come out of pocket. I'm very nervous about vouchers because they will deteriorate every local public school system, not just Hamilton County."
Robinson did emphasize that The King School could provide a quality education, but as an advocate for public education — and a school board member — she takes pride in the choices that Hamilton County Schools offers to students and families.
The King School leaders say the school isn't trying to detract from the public school system, though. Dirkse said it wasn't about taking away options, but adding another one for families.
When asked about the responsibility of private schools, and whether they had a role to play in improving education as a whole in Chattanooga, he said CCS believes in public education.
"We owe it to every child in Chattanooga, those of us who are involved in education, to ensure every child receives a high-quality education," he said.