Hamilton County's state representatives are encouraged by the school district's progress under Superintendent Bryan Johnson, but still had some questions for the school board at a joint meeting Tuesday.
In stark contrast to a joint meeting between the school board and the Hamilton County Commission the previous day, the legislative delegation had much to say, including questions about career and technical education, student performance and other changes seen under Johnson's leadership.
The two groups met at Orchard Knob Middle School Tuesday for a review of Johnson's five-year strategic plan and the school board's soon-to-be-ratified legislative priorities.
Workforce development and focus on literacy will remain significant for lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session, as well as the focus on testing and how it can be improved.
State Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, and newly elected state Rep. Robin Smith, R-Chattanooga, both said they were encouraged by the progress made locally, while acknowledging the county's dismal rates of student achievement.
"I think what we're seeing today is certainly very positive and we are also all aware that we have a long way to go," Hazlewood said. "We have work to do."
In the district's five-year plan, Johnson and his team have set some lofty goals, such as increasing the number of third-graders reading on grade level from 33.7 percent to 50 percent in the next five years and reaching a 90 percent graduation rate.
Hazlewood called the current literacy rates "dismal," and Smith added that performance locally and across the state was not where it should be.
Getting students prepared starts well before career and technical courses in high school, as evidenced by the statewide push for workforce development, in addition to a strong local focus, which was pointed out by District 5 board member Karitsa Mosley Jones at Monday's joint school board and county commission meeting.
"It's still concerning that literacy rates are so low," Smith said.
Johnson candidly agreed with lawmakers.
"I said it last night and I'll say it again, we should be outpacing the state when it comes to student achievement. There should be no question to that," he said.
State Rep. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said literacy wasn't a new problem; educators have been tackling it across the country for decades.
"Reading is fundamental," Watson acknowledged, but praised the district's innovative approaches such as the new math curriculum in the Opportunity Zone and the district's Future Ready Institutes.
The district's goals helped inspire the board's legislative priorities, which District 6 school board member Jenny Hill told lawmakers were all based on the desire to accelerate student achievement.
"We believe public education is really the cornerstone of how we take advantage of these opportunities. And it is, I believe, the engine for economic development and taking advantage of opportunities for every Tennessean. As a school board, we take that seriously," Hill said.
Lawmakers are confident in district leadership and Johnson's team now that the major shakeups that come with new leadership are over.
"I think the district has embraced our goals, as we've evolved, and we are beyond that disruption stage," Johnson told lawmakers. "You'll see very little change, we won't commit to introducing very big new things in schools and classrooms from here."
Board members will continue to communicate with lawmakers about their legislative priorities, Hill said.
"One thing we are very mindful of is becoming a vital part of our state ecosystems of schools," she said. "We are working with our colleagues in Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville to discuss the challenges that we, as large systems, face."
The board will vote to ratify its legislative priorities at Thursday's regular school board meeting at 5:30 p.m. at the Hamilton County Schools board room at 3074 Hickory Valley Road.