Cook: Counting the days for Chattanooga Prep [photos]

Cook: Counting the days for Chattanooga Prep [photos]

April 23rd, 2017 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Ted and Kelly Alling, co-founders of Chattanooga Prep, talk about moving in to the former Tennessee Temple buildings of Cierpke Library and Faulkner Hall to open the new boys school.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Counting the days for Chattanooga Prep

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David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

On Feb. 14, one of the most radiant, gallantly promising ideas landed on the desk of Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly and his staff.

It was the 261-page proposal for a new charter school called Chattanooga Prep.

It's one of the finest ideas in local public education in the last 10 years.

"The purpose of the school is to change the lives of young men who face multiple challenges to academic success," the proposal reads.

Understanding the way poverty haunts the classroom is no longer a choice. Education must be holistic, precise and anti-poverty relevant, and the proposal seems to lean into these issues, eagerly and urgently, with confidence and best-practice intention.

Which brings us to the founders and leaders of Chattanooga Prep.

Kelly and Ted Alling.

And Elaine Swafford.

Search the city for the best minds in education, business and leadership, and you'll end up here: Alling and Swafford.

Ted Alling, who, with friends Barry Large and Allan Davis turned Access America Transport from a college idea into a multibillion-dollar company before helping revitalize modern entrepreneurism here, is one of the most fruitful and engaged business leaders in our city's modern history.

Kelly Alling worked as resource manager for Habitat for Humanity, gaining the pearl of great price: a clear-eyed understanding of poverty and ways to overcome it.

After a family sabbatical to London, Ted and Kelly returned to Chattanooga with a new vow, hoping to foundationally alter inequity here. They turned to education.

In perfect Alling style, they searched for the best practices and best people. Traveled the U.S. looking at successful schools. Bought a cornerstone building in Highland Park — one of the best days of our lives, they said. Continued investing millions more into the future school.

Slowly, they became the most powerful of all forces: a couple operating on empathy and altruism.

Then they partnered with Swafford.

Named executive director of Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy in 2012, Swafford is known across the country, and was profiled not long ago in The Atlantic. She is a no-quit, no-excuses, data-heavy type of educator who believes the classroom should have the phoenix-like ability to take students out of the ashes and into new life.

When she started at CGLA, the school was in the gutter. Today, it represents the gold standard. Some of the biggest test score gains in the state come from CGLA. More than 90 percent of its seniors go to college.

Chattanooga Prep has the same vision for the young men in Highland Park. The school will sit next to CGLA, with Swafford as its guiding consultant, with plans to open in 2018, beginning with 6th grade, adding one grade a year.

They've held neighborhood meetings, which have ended in tears as parents and grandparents say, "thank you."

These are the same two words I'd expect from Hamilton County.

A roll-out-the-red-carpet, standing-ovation, hark-the-herald-angels, thank-you-oh-so-much.

However.

It's been 68 days since the proposal hit Kelly's desk.

By law, the superintendent has 90 days to deliver it to the school board for discussion, vote and approval.

But 68 days?

Sure, it's budget season, and there are many fires to put out, but I have to wonder: what on earth is taking Kelly and his staff so long?

Would the Chamber of Commerce folks slow-foot a proposal from a Fortune 500 company? Would tourism leaders cold-shoulder an offer from some mega-convention?

Why haven't there been press conferences, a smiling Kelly next to a beaming Swafford and the Allings, all surrounded by young men?

"What a gift," the superintendent might say. "Thank you so very much."

But it's been 68 days.

Thursday, on Day 72, the nine-member school board is expected to consider this proposal.

Here's to a 9-0 vote.

What a day that will be.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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