Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson is reflecting on all the changes that have happened since he took over leadership of the 44,000-student school district in July 2017 — and what needs to happen to keep improving.
In light of ongoing community debate about how to fund public education, especially teacher pay, Johnson says the community should remain focused on who it is really about: children.
"We need the focus to be on children, just very simply. The focus isn't the adult or the adults, it's about children," he said during his annual State of the Schools address to the Hamilton County Council of PTAs on Monday. "And then when we think about what do children need, the next layer is what do teachers need, because teachers have the most significant impact on students. ... We just need the focus to be on improving our school system. And, frankly, I want to keep it there."
Johnson also said he hopes that at next year's 2020 State of the Schools address there will be more buy-in and commitment from the community toward improving schools.
"I hope that our data improves. I hope that our students are continuing to achieve at a high level," he told reporters. "I hope that the community is bought into the work. I hope there is a level of hope that exists in regards to what our students can and have done," he said.
Johnson reflected on some of the biggest changes that have happened over the past two years in the school district, including efforts to expand inclusive education settings for students with special needs or disabilities, improvements in how the district serves English language learners and the launch of more than two dozen Future Ready Institutes, or smaller career academies embedded in traditional high schools that bridge the gap between high school and industry for students.
He also highlighted the significant academic achievement, especially in student growth.
For the 2018-19 school year, Hamilton County Schools was ranked second in terms of student growth rate by the Tennessee Department of Education, thanks to the district's TNReady test results and Tennessee Value-Added Assessment Scores (TVAAS) scores.
TVAAS, which ranks teachers, schools and districts on a scale from 1 to 5, looks at whether students are improving. A level 3 TVAAS score indicates the school or district is meeting the state's expectations for growth.
In 2018-19, Hamilton County Schools received an overall TVAAS score of 5, the highest possible score, as well as level 5 in four areas, including literacy, numeracy and social studies.
"We want to continue to accelerate the work that's been done. I think the thing I talk to folks a lot about is once you've experienced success, it gets more difficult. That's when there is usually more potential and more expectancy that exists and that's where we want to make sure that we continue to move students forward," Johnson said.
Monty Bruell, a local businessman and a 2021 Chattanooga mayoral candidate, commended the superintendent for the work he and the district have done, but Bruell feels like there is a level of divisiveness around education in Hamilton County.
"When I'm out in the community, when I talk to people and even when I talk to elected officials, I hear very much a 'them versus us' mentality," Bruell said.
"Despite all the great work happening in the classroom, how do you change our hearts and minds? How do we get beyond this divisiveness and realize we are all in this together and we have one school system?" Bruell asked Johnson.
Johnson said it all goes back to the thousands of students that sit in Hamilton County classrooms.
"It doesn't matter where [they] go to school, how do we best prepare every one of our children? We've got to get to a place where it doesn't matter where you are, if you're a Hamilton County student, we're going to make sure you have what you need to be successful," Johnson said.
Later, when asked by a reporter about recent debates between the school board and the Hamilton County Commission, Johnson added, "I'm here for children. My focus is on children. My focus isn't on political parties or partisanship."
He also acknowledged that he believes there are many in the community committed to investing in local public schools.
"I believe [the community] is changing," Johnson told reporters. "I think there are a lot of people investing in the work from a monetary investment but in other ways, as well. ... There are people that are investing so deeply in the work that is being done in Hamilton County schools."
Contact Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum