published Friday, October 4th, 2013

Forum: Chattanooga schools need more from their communities

Lurone  Jennings
Lurone Jennings
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

If Chattanooga's schools are to improve significantly and they are to produce well-trained graduates, education officials say it will take more than just teachers, principals and students.

School, city, county and nonprofit officials gathered Thursday evening said it will take more from parents, community members and businesses to take public schools to the next level.

"We send missionaries to foreign countries and military forces to take over other countries. And I'm saying we need to do home missions," said Lurone Jennings, the director of youth and family development for the city.

Jennings and other local officials discussed public education during a Thursday forum hosted by Delta Kappa Gamma Society International, a group of women educators. Jennings said the city is working to both boost educational achievement and curb youth crime -- issues that are closely tied to home and community life.

The city has rolled out new reading programs at recreational centers and a mentoring program for students. And it soon will launch a new early childhood center to help prepare kids for school.

"But we're also challenging the churches," Jennings said. "You cannot legislate the heart of man in government. We're saying to our churches, 'You've got to wake up, you've got to get up. Come out of these four walls.'"

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith said partnerships between public and private agencies will help provide some of the most powerful change for schools and students alike.

"I think we have to decide what we want our public school system to be. And if we envision our public school system to be a certain way, how do we get there?" he said. "I very much intend to push that conversation to the surface, that this entire community needs to decide what they want this school system to be."

County Commissioner Warren Mackey acknowledged that schools are under tremendous pressure, both from societal problems like poverty and educational issues like heightened expectations and accountability. But he said the school system needs to continue to find creative ways to partner and share resources, because the commission, which funds schools, is unlikely to up its financial support.

"Let me be very clear: money is tight," Mackey said. "There is absolutely no desire to raise taxes."

This is a time of rapid change for the school system. The new Common Core State Standards will ask more of teachers. The superintendent hopes to eventually put an iPad or similar device into every student's hands for use at home and at school. And those changes can weigh on teachers, many of whom don't stay in education for more than a few years.

All four officials Thursday said teachers and schools need more from their communities.

"We're at a critical moment in our public schools. We're at a critical moment in our community," said Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation. "There are so many people who say they care about public schools. What we have to do is move to a movement of people who will help public schools, work with public school students and move this community forward."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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