published Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Dalton Roberts: Kirkman legacy can still be saved


by Dalton Roberts

We gained so much more than we lost in building an aquarium and all the riverfront developments, but our biggest loss as a community was missing the opportunity to build a first-class vocational school at or near Chattanooga State Community College.

We already have staff and facilities there that would be hard for any community to amass. They could both teach some of the classes and supervise staff in the development of a high school curriculum.

This is not a spur-of-the-moment suggestion. When Kirkman Technical School was closing to make room for the Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga Mayor Gene Roberts and I presented this plan to city school Superintendent Harry Reynolds. (I was Hamilton County executive at the time.)

He said they had already decided to move all the vocational and technical equipment to Howard and to make it the vocational/technical school for the entire city. He said it was what the Howard alumni association wanted, and he felt he had no choice but to go along with it.

The Kirkman Alumni Association was losing a school with a very rich history of success in training the Chattanooga work force. They trusted city and county officials to keep a strong vocational/technical school here, and a foolish decision was made to move the operation to Howard. Their trust was betrayed.

With respect for all who have done their best to create something special at Howard, to think a vocational school could be superimposed on that high school operation was the most foolish education decision ever made in local education.

In addition to the obvious problem of adding vocational curriculum to the regular high school curriculum, resulting in loss of focus for the vocational component, there's the hard fact of life that recruiting students from outside the Howard area, in both white and black communities, would be a major problem, to put it mildly. Mayor Roberts and I made this point energetically but, I am sorry to say, the die had been cast.

The mayor and I were right. The equipment has been underused, the students have not shown up, and there is nothing happening that would remotely resemble the historic excellence of Kirkman. Worst of all, we have lost precious time and even lost our historic understanding and respect for the value of vocational and technical education. All this is happening at a time when we are devoting massive city, county and chamber dollars and efforts to bringing in the kind of industries that need the kind of graduates a good vocational/technical school produces.

Chattanooga State does an incredible job of working with industries like Volkswagen and all the industries we have brought in for the last several decades, but why not start a bigger stream of qualified workers by starting the educational process three or four years earlier with a first-class school designed for that purpose and focused completely on that goal?

Unless we allow this to get bogged down as a racial or city/county issue, we still have the time and people we need to build a first-class school in the best place in the world for it -- on or near the Chattanooga State campus.

Who knows how long this window of opportunity will be open. We need to realize it is the best thing we can do right now to create jobs for all our citizens.

Email Dalton Roberts at DownhomeP@aol.com.

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