Merger Makes a Difference

By Bess Keller — February 28, 2006 1 min read

Chattanooga educators can tick off many alterations since 2001 at the once-troubled “Benwood schools”: new principals and buildings, more and better professional development, financial incentives for teachers to stay, and more.

But one change that almost certainly helped the schools shoot from among the worst in Tennessee to among the fastest-improving predates all the others.

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Charging the Gap

On July 1, 1997, the Chattanooga schools merged with the surrounding Hamilton County district, creating one system where there had been two. Students in the city of nearly 155,000 are predominantly black and poor. In the rest of the 585-square-mile county pupils tend to be white and middle-class.

Chattanooga voters, many fed up with paying taxes for both city and county schools, twice narrowly approved turning the system over to the county. A new school board subsequently chose Jesse B. Register, the veteran of a North Carolina city-county school merger, to plan the merger and lead the unified district.

Many now credit the consolidation and Mr. Register, who is stepping down in June after 10 years as chief, for new opportunities that benefited the low-performing schools. When the bitterly contested merger went off without any substantial hitch, for instance, educators and residents alike were primed for other changes.

“The merger brought new energy not just in the schools, but in the community,” said Daniel Challener, the local Public Education Foundation president.“It was a catalyst for greater community involvement and investment.”

The consolidation also widened the resources available, which was especially important for the lowest-achieving schools. As one example: Suburban principals agreed to take teachers who did not make the cut when the Benwood schools chose new staffs from scratch.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as Merger Makes a Difference