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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter/ The Howard School Principal and Principal of the Year LeAndrea Ware, right, helps unveil Hamilton County Schools student achievement scores at the Tennessee Aquarium on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Congratulations are in order for Hamilton County educators, students and parents:

At long last, our students posted learning gains so high that the district ranked second in the state only to Williamson County in terms of overall student growth — what our youngsters learned year over year — for the 2018-19 school year.

These academic gains are "historic," according to local and state school officials. Alongside the county and city mayors and other local officials, Superintendent Bryan Johnson announced that Hamilton County Schools earned the highest designation possible — a Level 5 — based on the 2018-19 TNReady test results and Tennessee Value-Added Assessment Scores (TVAAS).

What does this mean? It means more students are getting the knowledge they need to be successful and are being better prepared for the future. School board member Jenny Hill, of District 6, gave it specifics: "It means that more first graders are prepared for second grade, it means that 10th-graders are more prepared for ACT prep, it means that seniors are more prepared for college and their futures."

But before we get carried away, it's imperative to acknowledge that also across the board, our students are far, far behind where they should be from grade-level standpoints. For that matter, so are most other Tennessee students. And this is still unacceptable.

Consider: In this last school year — the one these results represent — only 33.4% of students in Hamilton County between grades 3 and 8 were reading on grade level, up from 33.2% the year before. Math grade-level showings are only slightly better, with 43.2% testing on or above grade level — up from 35.6%.

Make no mistake: We're proud of our students, teachers, parents, school administrators.

But we want more. Our students deserve more.

Much, much more.

We say this lest anyone put down their papers or switch off their computers or televisions thinking — whew! no more talk of needed extra dollars to grow our school operating funds, and no more talk of tax increases.

As hard as it may be to let go of that notion, talking about more is a necessity.

We must understand where we are and how much further we must climb.

It has been gratifying to see that in his first two years, Johnson — with the help of community efforts — has turned school momentum around to bring our system from generally Level 1 growth rankings to these new Level 5 rankings — even without extra money beyond the normal county tax growth in sales and property assessments. Johnson has done this with a hands-on resource reorganization and a keen eye toward analyzing state standards and breaking them down into grade-by-grade "clear learning targets" for what this day, this week's or this month's curricula are intended to teach children.

He calls it "deconstruction" of standards, and the "clear learning targets" are posted on classroom bulletin boards as a student and teacher reminder. Example: "I'll be able to multiply single-digit numbers."

It's not teaching to the test, it's teaching to the standard, he says — which is what it takes to get to the next grade band.

More to the point, it's what it takes to give our children the skills they need to advance to the next grade, graduate, get jobs and survive in life.

In a meeting with the Times Free Press earlier this week, we asked Johnson: What is your response to a board member or a county commissioner who says: See, you could do this without any extra money. We didn't need a tax increase. (You'll recall that the county commission recently refused the county mayor's proposal for a 34-cent tax increase to better fund schools.)

Johnson answered with a sports analogy we can all understand.

"You can win a game, but you never get satisfied with just that one win. You have to think about the next week's game, the next season," he said. "This is a win for our students and teachers, but we have to think about what we're going to do to be better. and we're going to continue to invest in that. We're always trying to take ourselves up to the next level."

Johnson has proven that he and teachers and students are up to the task.

The question now is whether the community and our elected officials are up to the task.

Time will tell.

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