For many parents in Chattanooga's most struggling neighborhoods, the announcement of the creation of an all-boys Chattanooga Prep School is an answer to prayers.
They are the same type of prayers, hopes and dreams most parents harbor for their children — a better life than they as parents had, an education that challenges their child, an atmosphere that mimics what they as parents want to give their children, an education where one size doesn't fit all, an environment that prepares them for good jobs and a good life.
The charter school, planned for a 2018 opening, is the type of recommendation we had hoped might come out of the Chattanooga 2.0 initiative. It was one of the ideas floated by the founding leadership of UnifiEd, a community education empowerment organization. It is the type of thinking we hope will come from a new superintendent of Hamilton County Schools.
It is, after all, somebody trying to do something different, to change things, to shake things up. And that's not been the broad history of the local school district, especially where it concerns the equitable education of children in struggling neighborhoods.
Instead, public school-only backers predicted failure for Chattanooga's current three privately run charter schools when they began over the last decade. They're taking away money from our public schools, they argued. They won't have qualified teachers, they predicted. They won't be able to stay afloat, they said. Yet, they're all thriving.
The same public school-only supporters also are adamantly against even a trial voucher system, where a limited number of qualified students in low-performing schools would receive a voucher to attend a private school for the same amount of money that would be given to the school district for that student.
It amazes us how these folks, who claim to want the best for students, would rather have them return to schools with a growing history of poor performance instead of trying something that might improve their lot.
Chattanooga Prep, the brainchild of Ted and Kelly Alling, will have a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curriculum and will focus on leadership. Mentorship of the students also will be foundational.
The school will partner with Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy (CGLA), one of the current three Hamilton County charter schools, and will be located adjacent to CGLA in two buildings formerly occupied by Tennessee Temple University.
It will open with 60 sixth-graders and add a grade a year.
A connected clinic and food pantry are also in the Allings' plans, enhancing the sort of wraparound format that some public school districts are beginning to think about today in the knowledge that lack of nutrition and medical care are among concerns for students from struggling neighborhoods.
The Allings moved to Chattanooga in 2002, he as a founder of Access America Transport and she as resource manager of Habitat for Humanity. Through Habitat, they learned of the struggles of families in Chattanooga's poorer neighborhoods.
After they sold Access America two years ago and spent a year's sabbatical with their three children in London, they returned to the Scenic City to determine how they could make a difference with the aforementioned families.
Chattanooga Prep is their answer, and we believe it couldn't come at a better moment. With Chattanooga 2.0, with stagnant county test scores, with a headline-grabbing high school rape case, with the threat of a state takeover of struggling schools and with McCallie School's creation of the National Center for the Development of Boys, the past year has seen a laser focus on local public education.
Yet, one new school board member recently made a motion and two other school board members made the necessary moves to place on the agenda at the next meeting of the Hamilton County Board of Education the idea that we continue with the leadership now in place at the school district. Since then, interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly has asked that a search voted on by the board go forward.
With respect to the efforts of that leadership, though, we believe out-of-the-box thinking like what the Allings are doing is more along the lines of what is needed for local schools.
We're excited for the prospects of Chattanooga Prep's students and hope the school can be a catalyst for deeper thinking about the long-term needs of local education.