Monday, August 20, 2012

Chattanooga Schools: Where To Send Your Kids and Move Your Family

A Howard High School baton twirler
Copyright ©
Fancy Rhino
Whether you are discussing tourism, neighborhood histories, industry, economics, race or any other aspect of Chattanooga and its long history, the common theme is revitalization. Though Chattanooga has had darker times in the past 150 some odd years of it existence, in the past 20 years the story has over and over become one of hope and exponential improvement. So is the case with Chattanooga's schools, as beautifully demonstrated on Thursday, August 16 at the world premier of Fancy Rhino's documentary on the Howard school, Build Me a World.

Although not as dramatic a story of recovery as Howard's, many Chattanooga schools are working hard to improve after decades of frustration and complaints from locals about the lackluster quality of local education. For years parents had to weigh which of the suburban schools was the least mediocre, with Red Bank usually winning out over Hixon or East Ridge. There were also the Christian and private alternatives, including St. Nicholas SchoolThe Bright SchoolChattanooga Christian School, Boyd Buchanan, Notre DameGirls Preparatory School, McCallie School, and Baylor. In the past ten years, however, the city has been making a concerted effort not only to bring its downtown business and residential districts back to life, but to invest in the revitalization of local education.

GPS students in the traditional summer uniform
Copyright © GPS.edu
Since 1986, magnet schools like Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences have been some of the best offerings in the city. The Chattanooga Times Free Press describes the lengths some parents would go to to get their children admitted,,
"Over the years, the school system dabbled with a lottery system for enrollment into CSAS and Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, but for most of the schools’ history securing a seat for a kindergartner meant one thing: sheer willpower. Parents would camp outside the school for weeks to guarantee their child a place.  
'It was horrendous, and it was great,' said Vallerie Greer, who camped out in line in 1989 and again in 1992 and got both her kids into CSAS. “We were in a town that didn’t value public education, but there was a whole group of people sitting outside because they did value it.”
Su Hendrickson in her wig and makeup for a
2009 CSAS production of Seussical the Musical
Since then, more and more magnet schools have been added to Chattanooga's public school offering, and these are the ones most often brought up by parents as local favorites. "Battle Academy is an amazing school! We have two there right now and love the "family" feel...the teachers and the strong related arts program," gushed Highland Park mom Ashley Culpepper Stinson. Another Chattanooga parent, Laurie Perry Vaughen, described several of the magnet schools, "I hear great things about CSLA and of course there is still great demand at CSAS. At Normal Park, my son will get to go snorkeling in the Conasauga River next Friday and in September he will go for a week to study marine biology at Jekyll Island [It's] a public school rich in content." 

In addition to the success of the magnet schools program, non-magnet schools have been getting a major overhaul. East Lake Elementary, East Side, Hardy, Hillcrest, Orchard Knob (Elementary and Middle), Rivermont, Woodmore, Dalewood Middle, East Lake Academy were all cited in 2009 by WRCB as failing or struggling schools, and what they have in common is being the schools in poorer inner city districts. Although many of these neighborhoods are being revitalized, it is often by individuals and couples without children, or families who have gotten their kids into magnet or private schools. Revitalization of schools necessarily follows after the increase in property values and investment of time and energy by students' families. 
Students boarding the bus to go home from school
Copyright © Chattanooga Times Free Press

Those changes are already in effect, however.
Fancy Rhino documented the success of new state and national standards and excellence programs at Howard School in their documentary Build Me a World. Ms. Vaughen noted that big changes are ahead for Red Bank high school, which was shaken up when many of its students were redistricted when Signal Mountain opened its own high school. "Red Bank just went through a new re-do and infusion of energy and they have new leadership," she said. "Also keep an eye on Brainerd's transformation. Glenn Perry who just left Howard to be part of new leadership at Brainerd as assistant principle." She also noted there are great new developments at East Ridge elementary, which is emphasizing English for Speakers of Other Languages programing and cultural diversity.
Battle Academy, at the corner of Market and Main in Chattanooga' s Southside
So what does all this mean for parents and families trying to choose a neighborhood? One one hand, what has been true in Chattanooga for decades is still true-- the suburbs still have the best school districts. That means Red Bank, Signal Mountain, Lookout Mountain's Fairyland area, parts of Hixson, and Ooltewah. Courtney Cochran, a working mother of two, explained that she recently moved from Brainerd to Hixson to get her children into better schools. 

For those who are interested in magnet schools, or want a more urban lifestyle for their families, there are more options near major magnet schools. North Chattanooga and Riverview are nearby Normal Park and the Chattanooga Creative Arts schools. The Southside and Highland Park are near Battle Academy and Chattanooga School of Arts and Sciences. For those parents and families interested in home schooling, St. Elmo has long been the neighborhood in Chattanooga with a high concentration of home schooling and un schooling families. While it isn't necessary to live there to be tapped into that community, for those who want to be nearby other home schoolers and more easily coordinate outings and study sessions, it's definitely an area to consider.

For those whose incomes or other factors put them in districts with lower performing schools and private or magnet schools are not an option, don't despair. Brainerd and Howard schools are rapidly improving thanks to strong leadership and community attention. Orchard Knob and East Chattanooga will surely see similar revitalization in the next 10 years thanks to neighborhood comebacks in Highland Park and the Glass Farms district of East Chatt. Organizations like Glass House Collective are working hard to bring new life and hope to historically forgotten neighborhoods, which will in turn affect the quality of their schools.