Tennessee Waltz

By Ann Bradley — October 01, 1995 21 min read
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In Chattanooga, Tenn., the word on everyone’s lips these days is “fear.’' That’s not the usual sentiment in this river city of 155,000 souls. Farsighted civic leaders have cleaned up downtown, rebuilt substandard housing, and dedicated the $45 million freshwater Tennessee Aquarium on the banks of the snaking Tennessee River. Chattanooga, once a dirty, declining industrial town, has been reborn.

The city is justifiably puffed up over these and other accomplishments. But its hardest task has just begun. This time, Chattanoogans are wrestling with something more important--and more fragile--than its buildings. They are talking about their children. And it’s making them uneasy--fearful.

Last fall, after years of declining enrollments and mounting expenses, city residents voted to give up their school system and consolidate with the Hamilton County system. In Tennessee, state law requires counties, not cities, to furnish education. Similar votes in recent years have merged the Knoxville and Nashville school systems into their surrounding counties.

In the Chattanooga area, with its record of renaissance, folks decided to go about the consolidation in their own way. Instead of simply merging, they’re striving mightily to craft an entirely new school system that draws on the successes of both. Helping people think differently about their children’s schooling isn’t an easy task. It’s particularly hard because the new school district, which will open for business in July 1997, will combine two different systems--each with its own traditions, programs, and leadership.

If that weren’t enough, the new system also will combine different populations. The Chattanooga city schools are 62 percent black, while the Hamilton County schools are 95 percent white. Race is certainly not the only issue giving people pause. But it is a strong undercurrent running through discussions about the new school system. There’s no way it could not be, given the debates over race making prominent headlines across the country.

What residents say they want in the new system, it turns out, also reflects what they don’t want. They want neighborhood schools--which means no cross-county busing. They want local governance of schools--which means control in the hands of parents and teachers, not distant bureaucrats. And somehow, in the midst of the massive change looming, many want to preserve things just the way they are.

Creating a new school system is going to take every ounce of goodwill, inventiveness, and moxie that Chattanoogans can muster. “This should have happened a long time ago,’' says Gloria Moore, who teaches honors American history at Soddy-Daisy High School in the county system. “Now, we have separate black and white communities. If it had happened a long time ago, it would have minimized white flight and alleviated the sense of separateness that we all have. It’s going to be difficult, and we need to just suck it up and settle into it. As a citizen of the community, I think it’s good we’re doing it. But as a teacher, I have a lot of fears.’'

The campaign that led up to last fall’s vote was divisive. The City Council itself split 5-4 over whether to put the charter amendment on the ballot.

Members of the Chattanooga school board, superintendent Harry Reynolds, the city’s teachers, and many leaders of the African-American community forcefully opposed the measure. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to try to block it. Opponents warned that the overwhelmingly white county school system couldn’t be trusted to properly educate low-income black students. All manner of fears were fanned: of massive busing for integration purposes, wholesale teacher reassignments, school closings, overcrowded classrooms, and tax hikes.

Against this clamor, proponents claimed that combining the systems would be more--not less--equitable. They insisted that it would be fairer for city taxpayers, who were supporting both systems with their county and city property taxes. The City Council’s annual subsidy for the Chattanooga schools had tripled since 1985, to $8.2 million. Backers of the consolidation also argued that the merger would provide an unprecedented opportunity to rethink public schooling.

Chattanoogans took the plunge, voting 22,694 to 19,044 in favor of going out of the school business.

Hamilton County residents, of course, didn’t get to vote on the matter. Many didn’t think the measure would pass. When it did, it was up to the county school board to figure out how to plan for the new system, which will serve 47,000 students. Initially, Don Loftis, superintendent of the county schools, suggested that he should head up the effort. But given the bitterness of the campaign, that idea didn’t seem wise.

A month after the election, the board voted to ask the local Public Education Foundation to help frame the new system. The move was partly on the advice of educators in Knoxville, who faced problems after consolidating rapidly with Knox County eight years ago. The foundation, one of the wealthiest local education funds in the country, has worked closely with educators in both the city and county. Its president, Steven Prigohzy, is a dynamo with a clear vision of where he’d like to take education in the new system.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a county of this size to rethink public education,’' he says. “But it’s very difficult to make people understand that.’'

The word merger conjures up technical images: combining pension plans, equalizing salaries, choosing a transportation system, locating a central office. All legitimate issues, but not about children.

What Prigohzy and the steering committee overseeing the plans for the new system envision is on another level entirely. For starters, they are talking about a few simple, but powerful, benchmarks: ensuring that students achieve a standard of literacy by 3rd grade that will enable them to succeed in school; making sure every student who finishes 8th grade is on track for postsecondary education; producing students who are able to enter college or the workplace without remedial course work; and getting the public more involved with school reform.

This past summer, more than 30 people came together to draft the initial framework for the system. Eventually, the committee will release its plan and invite feedback. Then, the plan--complete with necessary additions and adjustments--will go to the Hamilton County Board of Education for action.

The planning effort received a major shot in the arm in June, when the Walter H. Annenberg Foundation awarded a $2.5 million challenge grant to the Public Education Foundation for the creation of the new system. The Lyndhurst Foundation of Chattanooga matched that dollar figure; the Chattanooga community will be asked to chip in another $2.5 million.

Raising that much money in a mid-sized city might seem daunting, but Chattanooga is blessed with a disproportionate share of old money. The city, while primarily a former blue-collar manufacturing center, is home to the families who first bottled Coca-Cola. Some became billionaires. The Lyndhurst Foundation, for example, takes its name from the family seat of one of the bottling clans.

Other goodies gave rise to different fortunes--Chattanooga spawned Brock candies, Little Debbie pastries, and Krystal hamburgers, a square-shaped, onion-smothered regional favorite. The city also is the home of Olan Mills Inc., the nation’s school photographer. And the publishers of its newspapers, The Chattanooga Times and the Chattanooga News-Free Press, are the descendants of Adolph S. Ochs, who went on to buy The New York Times.

But it’s also true that some of the best-off Chattanoogans have kept an arms-length relationship with the public schools. The city has three top-flight private schools that educate many of its elite. Increasingly, though, the city’s movers and shakers have realized that excellent public schools could be the glue that holds together their vision of Chattanooga as one of the best places to live in America.

Chattanooga’s low cost of living, rolling green hills, abundant fishing holes, and mild climate, they realize, aren’t enough to keep the city competitive in the 21st century. “We need to be concerned about the overall school system because it’s related to our economic health,’' says Ronald O’Neal, who serves as president of the Hamilton County school board and owns a company that represents plumbing and heating manufacturers. “That’s what draws companies in. They want to know about our schools and our churches.’'

The new fabric will be woven from seemingly disparate threads. An elected school board and professional educators run the Chattanooga public schools, with 20,300 students. Reynolds, who has been superintendent for seven years, came to Chattanooga from the East Side Union High School District in San Jose, Calif. He notes proudly that the Chattanooga city schools launched Nolan Estes, who went on to serve as superintendent in Dallas, and Benjamin Carmichael, a former Tennessee education commissioner.

In contrast, the Hamilton County schools are part and parcel of the county’s political structure. Until recently, county commissioners appointed the school board. They also picked the superintendent. Loftis, who has headed the schools for 16 years, came to the post from a job in the county courthouse.

No outsider has ever run the schools.

The governance of the county schools is now in transition, thanks to a 1992 state school reform law. District elections have filled five of the nine school board seats; next year, district voters will fill the last four seats. It is this elected board that will hire the superintendent to run the consolidated school system. Few expect either Loftis or Reynolds to be in the running.

The two systems also have sharply contrasting reputations. The city, despite the support of national foundations for innovative programs and schools, consistently scores well below the county on standardized tests. It’s also considered to be managed from the top down. The county, while known for traditional classrooms, has given its schools some measure of decisionmaking authority through school-based management. The truth is, Prigohzy asserts, that neither system educates low-income

students very well. Both also have suffered from constant comparisons.

“For years, the county folks have been thinking that their schools are better than they are,’' he says, “and the city people have been thinking that their schools are worse than they are.’'

Early on, the Public Education Foundation hired a consultant to take the pulse of Chattanoogans on consolidation. It also distributed a questionnaire asking residents to list what they like best and what they would change about the public schools with which they were most familiar. “The trust level is exceedingly low from all parties involved,’' the consultant’s report concluded, “leading to defensive behaviors designed to ‘protect what is known’ rather than ‘envision what could be developed.’ ''

It went on to warn that “there is a need to overcome racial, economic, and class distrust that exists throughout the communities.’'

The survey also turned up evidence of optimism and pride in the schools and hope for the new system. But because it’s still on the drawing board, people’s suspicions are much more specific at this point than their hopes. “There is a fear that people aren’t dealing off the top of the deck,’' Reynolds says. “The second fear is that the city is not going to get its fair shake since we’re not part of the old-boy network that pervades the county school system.’'

Planners of the new school system will draw some of their lessons from Chattanooga’s experience with its Paideia schools, which are organized around the principles of philosopher Mortimer Adler. His influential 1982 manifesto, The Paideia Proposal, caught the Lyndhurst Foundation’s attention. In it, Adler argued that schools, the foundation of democracy, must eliminate tracking to accommodate individual differences and respect children’s potential. Pedagogy, such as the Socratic method, should be designed to engage students, he wrote.

Civic leaders convened by the foundation agreed to give the principles--considered radical at the time but generally accepted now--a try. The Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, which opened 10 years ago with Prigohzy as its principal, showed people that high-quality programs would attract an integrated student body. Parents lined up to get their children into the magnet school, which has consistently produced top-notch students. Since the school opened, the city system has created five more Paideia schools, including some neighborhood schools that don’t have the luxury of taking children from highly motivated families.

Jack Murrah, president of the Lyndhurst Foundation, believes school problems have driven residential segregation. But when schools are small, safe, connected to their communities, and strongly identified with quality education, he argues, people can overcome their racial fears. “Then, diversity becomes positive within a school,’' he says. Lyndhurst’s contribution to the new school system will go specifically toward strengthening and expanding the network of schools committed to the Paideia principles.

The Chattanooga schools also have an active Library Power project, funded by the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, and an Edna McConnell Clark Foundation middle school initiative. Schools involved in these reform projects have formed a network committed to a shared set of principles: an untracked curriculum that relies on original sources, student research, and good literature; active learning and academic coaching, not lecturing; high expectations for students, who will take greater responsibility for their learning; parent involvement in decisionmaking; and extensive use of technology.

In its proposal to the Annenberg Foundation, the Public Education Foundation and its partners suggest organizing the new school system around clusters of schools that adhere to these same principles. Clusters will receive grants, mostly for professional development and to design governance systems. The new school system, they say, will be made up of “self-governing, democratic schools deeply integrated into their communities.’' The central office will be responsible for providing money and demanding results. Schools and clusters of schools will report on how they spend the money and how their students fare but will be free to develop the educational strategies that best address their community’s needs.

Although its programs have a much lower profile, Hamilton County provides first-rate early-childhood and after-school programs and has taken steps toward self-managed schools. Its middle schools have begun working with their counterparts in Chattanooga to come up with a plan that would attract more funding from the Clark Foundation.

Superintendent Loftis complains that the county hasn’t gotten credit for its efforts, including some of the state’s stiffest graduation requirements and an early commitment to computers in classrooms. “I think we do pretty doggone good myself,’' he asserts. “Why do people always attack the one doing well?’'

Overall, he agrees, the county’s schools tend to be traditional. But he’s not at all sure that creating Paideia schools--"schools with funny names’'--is the answer to what ails education.

One of Loftis’ main challenges now is the care and feeding of the county school board, some of whose members have complained that they’re being kept in the dark about the plans for the new system. Loftis, their link to the steering committee, says he’s doing his level best to keep board members informed about the goings-on. In late spring, the board’s concerns grew loud enough to merit a front-page story in The Chattanooga Times, in which some members said they didn’t see the need to go to the trouble of creating a new system.

Neither do some county residents, who point out that it was city dwellers who were unhappy enough with their system to want to dissolve it. “The biggest fear of county parents is that it’s almost going to be a takeover,’' says Paula Petty, president of the Hamilton County Parent-Teacher Association. “As a parent, there is a concern on my part that I do not want quality education to go down in the county schools. I do not want to lower standards.’'

Petty and other county parents also adamantly do not want busing that takes children far from their neighborhoods. No one involved in planning the new system has suggested such busing, but the specter persists. Anxiety over busing was widespread enough during the election campaign that The Times wrote a lengthy editorial explaining that federal courts don’t hold school systems accountable for segregated housing patterns that lead to segregated schools.

What the new system must do is create a fair and level playing field for all students and avoid taking deliberate steps to segregate children. The emphasis is likely to be on providing transportation to the clusters of theme-oriented schools and on making neighborhood schools open to all students. The U.S. Education Department’s office for civil rights, Loftis notes, has offered to provide technical assistance.

Petty, whose children are 10 and 12, is especially concerned about the new system because she lives near the city limits. For years, she and her family have assumed that the children would attend Ooltewah High School. But if school boundaries are redrawn to send her children to the nearest high school, Petty says, they’d go to a city school. “I don’t want them in a city school,’' she says flatly. “There are violence problems. I want my daughter in a school with the kids she’s grown up with. I don’t want my kids to make needless changes.’'

City residents are painfully aware of such sentiments. They also are protective of their children and wary of combining the school systems.

“A lot of the concerns I have, the inner-city community shares,’' says Leroy Miller, an 8th grade social studies teacher at the Chattanooga Phoenix Middle School, one of the neighborhood schools using the Paideia concepts. “The county people say that’s a better system, but they’re not looking at the cultural differences that exist between the county and inner-city schools. You have parents living in the county, where the kids go home and see both people reading and writing and having professional jobs. The majority of inner-city kids don’t have that example. They see a street life. I grew up in the inner city, and I stay in the inner city. I try to conduct myself as a role model. I can drive a nice car and wear nice clothes and not be a hustler and a drug dealer.’'

Miller, who has been teaching since 1970, worries that county teachers will experience “culture shock’’ dealing with city students. At his school, he says, teachers are working hard to create an active learning climate that challenges students. One student who transferred into his class from a county school said his teacher lectured for three days, gave a test the fourth day, and let her class have free time on Fridays. Miller worries about having to revert to traditional pedagogy under the county’s control.

“We do a lot of cooperative learning and active learning,’' Miller says. “I try to get kids to look at the past and use their imagination to figure out how it relates to the present.’'

Chattanooga schools have been willing to innovate be-cause they’ve had to, explains Edna Varner, the middle school’s principal. “We’re poor, and we have to take risks to get the funding we need to support the programs we want to have. We learned early on that there are people out there willing to fund innovation.’'

“Before, when I was teaching,’' she continues, “there was no professional development. With the McConnell Clark grant, my teachers have been all over the country. Every teacher in the building has been to a state, regional, or national conference.’'

Varner, who taught English at the Arts and Sciences magnet school before becoming a principal, notes that administrators in the two school systems already have begun working together. But in the city, she says, bitterness and suspicion still linger over the consolidation. “The way things are, we are virtually segregated,’' she says. “Most of the county is white, and most of the city is black. When I hear, ‘We like things as they are,’ I hear, ‘We like segregated schools.’ Nobody says this, but looming out there somewhere has to be somebody’s notion that the county schools are better because that’s where the white kids are.’'

That could be true. But optimists note that Chattanooga doesn’t carry the ugly racial baggage of some Southern cities, such as Birmingham or Atlanta. The city has no history of overt racial hostility, says George Key Sr., a past president of the Chattanooga branch of the NAACP and a member of the steering committee.

Key, who grew up in and later helped lead the city’s oldest black Baptist church, recalls that 40 years ago Martin Luther King Jr.'s name came up as the church was searching for a new pastor. The church elders picked someone else. And that’s a good thing, Key believes, since blacks and whites lived in relative peace. “The Lord knew that the climate was not quite right in Chattanooga for the things Martin Luther King was going to be doing,’' Key says. “He never would have gotten off the ground with his program had he come into Chattanooga.’'

Teachers and administrators at Soddy-Daisy High School have learned that race is by no means the only source of social conflict. The county school, with 1,600 students in grades 9 to 12, has a $30,000 grant from the Public Education Foundation to offer students conflict-resolution and peer-mediation training. Its problems stem from socioeconomic differences, as the hilly, once-rural county becomes increasingly suburban and professional, and cultures clash.

Now, with consolidation, they worry that Soddy-Daisy might change beyond recognition. “I’m hoping they won’t play fruit-basket turnover with everyone, and we lose the community-school concept,’' says principal Robert Smith. “Usually, when they combine systems, they start busing kids and moving teachers. When you do that, there goes the PTA and the community support.’'

Still, teachers are hopeful. This past spring, as they sat outside in the shade at the home of Soddy-Daisy assistant principal Mitchell Chambers reviewing the year just past, they were able to see beyond their concerns. “I hope what we get from the city system is their faculty-improvement training,’' says history teacher Gloria Moore. “We lost that in the 1991 budget cuts. If you’re not in a school where the principal encourages you, you have stagnation.’'

Chambers hopes to see the new system take a firm stand on consistent curriculum standards. Teachers are feeling pressured to lower them, he complains.

And Gloria Rawlston, a home-economics teacher, has been impressed with the planners’ attempts to reach out to the community for ideas. “They could have said that 10 people will make all the decisions,’' she says. “They didn’t have to ask.’'

Despite their different public images, it’s possible that there’s more that unites than divides the schools in the Chattanooga and Hamilton County systems. At McConnell Elementary, a K-6 county school with 921 students, teachers boast of their school’s flexibility, its multiage classrooms, its plans to create schools within schools, and its strong parental involvement. Parents built “reading treehouses’’ in the corners of many classrooms, where students can hide away with a good book. At other times, the platforms become ships’ decks or stages for class plays.

On one wall, pictures and letters tell of the travels of Flat Stanley, a book character who has all sorts of adventures because of his unusual shape. Last school year, a cutout of Flat Stanley traveled all over the world with McConnell students’ friends and relatives. He went to Antarctica and to the set of the Home Improvement television show. In the process, students got a fun geography lesson and practiced writing letters.

“I’m looking forward to getting the strengths from both systems,’' says assistant principal Debbie Scarbrough, “in people as well as programs, and to doing what is best for the child.’'

Lakeside Elementary School in Chattanooga has the same kind of busy, positive atmosphere. With a Library Power grant, the teachers have developed their own curriculum built around children’s literature. In the corner of the library sits a small chuck wagon surrounded by Western gear. Students spent a month studying the book Justin and the Best Biscuits in the World, about a young African-American boy who visits a relative who owns a ranch.

The Lakeside students learned about the plant and animal life of the West, read up on and then attended a rodeo, and studied black cowboys in American history.

In the school’s science laboratory bubbles a “living machine’’ made up of interconnected tanks of water and plant life. With a National Science Foundation grant, teachers developed a curriculum around the living machine for the school’s 525 kindergartners through 5th graders.

Principal Faye Kimsey says test scores have “gone up, up, up’’ since the school chucked workbooks. Students are starting to return to the school from private schools or from being homeschooled by their parents. The infusion of grant money, she notes, has been a vital part of the turnaround.

“Now that we’ve done this,’' she says of consolidation, “I’m really looking forward with optimism that we can make a good school system, and that people will be willing to pay for it.’'

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Tennessee Waltz


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