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By Matt Hamilton | Hamilton County Schools superintendent Bryan Johnson gave his State of the System at East Brainerd Elementary School Thursday night.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson emphasized accelerating through difficult times in his annual State of the System Address.

Identifying the global coronavirus pandemic, April 2020 tornado and nationwide civil unrest this past summer, Johnson likened progress made in the last few months to overcoming the difficulties of the Great Depression.

"In the midst of crisis, we accelerated," he said Thursday night.

Johnson spoke at East Brainerd Elementary School, which was recently rebuilt after last year's tornado. He began speaking after an introduction from Principal Saunya Goss and prerecorded comments from Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and school board chairman Joe Wingate.

"There's no playbook for navigating a global pandemic, and we've exerted great effort as a board in prioritizing the health and safety of our students, staff and families with the high-quality teaching expected of Hamilton County Schools," Wingate said.

Achievements noted by Johnson include a summer learning program held in July 2020 to close learning gaps; reopening schools for 84 days of the fall semester; and implementing a partnership with EPB to provide free Wi-Fi to low-income families.

Johnson also identified four areas for improvement in the coming months: literacy and intervention, learning environments, educational equity and early post-secondary opportunities. Some of the steps to improve these areas include hiring a literacy officer to help close the literacy gap; discussing the next phase of facilities renovations; growing individualized student success plans from around 5,000 students to all students and expanding access to advanced courses for high school students.

Interspersed throughout the presentation were clips of Hamilton County students, families and staff sharing their experiences from the last several months. In the last clip, Brainerd High School student Kobe Rivers shared his experience of stepping out of his comfort zone through the Future Ready Institute's aviation program. Johnson wrapped up the presentation by paraphrasing a quote by Rivers to explain how the school system will reach its goals.

"That's what we have to do, Hamilton County it's going take us stepping out of our comfort zones a little bit — it's going take us accelerating," Johnson said.

For school board member Tucker McClendon, whose district was affected by the tornado last year, the school district is on the right track but has more work to do to get where it needs to be.

"I think once you look at the problems we face, from a third-grade literacy level to facilities to recruiting and retaining teachers, there's a lot of work to do, and I think Dr. Johnson outlined that last night and through our Future Ready plan 2023," McClendon told the Times Free Press on Friday. "We're trying to achieve those goals that we've laid out."

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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