The Signal Mountain Meeting

Friday, January 5, 2018

Thursday night was a packed house at Nolan Elementary on Signal Mountain, for the much-anticipated meeting between Hamilton County and the Signal Mountain Town officials. Chattanoogan writer, Roy Exum, had made glowing assurances about the meeting, claiming “all doubt, rumor and fear will be laid to rest when the Signal Mountain Town Council, the Hamilton County School Board, and county school representatives collectively present the entire community with the most brilliant suggestion any parent, student, taxpayer or American could ever dream.” 

Granted, there were moments of enthusiasm and praise on both sides throughout, and while I came away feeling encouraged by the strong direction HCDE leadership is heading, it was difficult to ignore the choice of topics at times by Signal Mountain officials. 

HCDE Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson detailed not only his goal for our county schools in achieving improvements (turns out not a few are already in the works), but also his unequivocal desire to see Signal Mountain schools remain a part of HCDE. This meeting was the beginning of the next step for his “Listening Tour,” which is talking to elected officials in each area of the county.  

District 2 School Board Representative Kathy Lennon expressed excitement regarding the new Advisory Committee for District 2, which begins its inaugural week Jan. 29. Other representatives on the School Board have similar initiatives in place, and it’s clear that Dr Johnson’s influence regarding listening to residents is inspiring action. District 2 residents are welcome to contact Ms. Lennon directly for more information (lennon_k@hcde.org). 

But it was Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley who shared one aspect of what I imagine was Mr. Exum’s “most brilliant suggestion” and it turns out it was Dr. Johnson’s (or maybe it was Mr. Howley’s — he jokingly said he thought of it too) idea for “cluster schools”; unfortunately, this grand idea wasn’t fully explained to those of us in the audience. 

One could infer it’s an outgrowth of the “Opportunity Zone” schools, which was initiated by Dr. Johnson shortly after he was hired. It seemed as if Signal Mountain is to become its own cluster, a boon to those wanting to split from HCDE, “because each individual school — like each individual child — has different needs,” said Mayor Howley. 

The mayor also was clearly encouraged by his previous meetings with the new superintendent, and referenced finding efficiencies in the system: taking resources and putting those towards needs like Art and STEM.  

And when asked exactly what precipitated the desire to split, Mayor Howley listed a variety of incidents, including the town having to pay 25 percent of the building of SMMHS, providing funds for 13 staff positions in the three schools, and a concern that these donated funds would eventually not be enough. Mr. Howley praised Signal Mountain residents for their willingness to be involved and donate, not only on the mountain, but said despite willingness to help other schools, “we don’t want our kids to go without.” 

Councilperson Amy Speek also had some concerns to share, including a perceived drop in enrollment at SMMHS. She explained that 25-30 percent of families send their children to schools off the mountain after elementary school. “And there goes MEF donations from those parents,” she said. In addition, she expressed frustration over having to pay $800 in school fees for her four children, as well as concerns for safety regarding the lack of a secondary entrance/exit at SMMHS and Nolan.  

Kathy Lennon explained that SMMHS was at 90 percent capacity (so any drop in enrollment has been balanced by an influx of new residents moving to Signal Mountain). This response led Ms. Speek to ask what the county plans to do with unincorporated students once the school does reach full capacity, She asked if HCDE would build a separate school or rezone Walden and UHC children. 

Dr. Lee McDade, assistant superintendent, responded clearly that the county would build an addition onto the existing school should the need arise. When questioned further, he said that families on the back side who use Roberts Mill Road daily would have the option to enroll their children in county schools off the mountain, should they desire, but that the buses would bring them to Signal Mountain schools. 

Dr. Bryan Johnson addressed Ms .Speek’s concerns about the entrance/exit issue (which I find a very valid concern and am pleased that the issue I spoke about at the SMTC meeting in November, 2014 is finally being addressed). Local resident Kim Fookes is heading up the research into options and viability for a second in/egress.

Several county officials spoke to increased need for Arts and STEM classes and instructors across the county, and addressed concerns about past issues like high turnover rate for principals at SMMHS, and funding issues.

Dr. Johnson spoke of leadership training, which has already been happening at HCDE, for principals and vice-principals. “We desire continuity,” said Dr. Johnson, “but in any district of any size, there’s always change.”

And the change he talked about was encouraging, to me.

Ms. Lennon made an excellent point regarding some of these changes: they haven’t been communicated well to the community, and that, too, needs to change. Dr. Johnson gave a nod early on to Mr. Tim Hensley, the new Communications Director at HCDE. It was heartening to hear our School Board representative taking ownership of issues, and I am hopeful communication will improve everywhere it’s needed.

At one point there was a shift in the conversation. It might’ve been the promised moment Mr. Exum’s readers had been waiting for . . . except it wasn’t.

Mayor Howley asked all the county officials if they’d read the SSVC report. Now this was a very fair question, I thought, and while there wasn’t a smooth segue into the topic change, it wasn’t entirely unexpected.

The followup question, however, was unexpected. 

Mayor Howley asked HCDE officials if they would identify three things they disagreed with in the report, or three things SSVC had gotten wrong.

There was an awkward pause. I’m not sure the county people quite knew how to respond to that. And it felt as if the Mayor was waiting on some specific response. I have no idea what that response was, but Dr. Johnson pointed out the original purpose of the report was to determine if it was possible to separate from HCDE, and while the report may contain usable information, that was not the reason for this meeting. 

And then he said, “We haven’t talked about the children yet.”

BOOM! There it is! That’s the great idea! Right there. 

Let’s talk about the children and learning, and actual ways to improve academics and education in our schools.

Dr. Bryan Johnson, our new Superintendent, said if the intent of the SSVC report shifts from “Can we separate?” to “How can we improve education?” then let’s have THAT conversation. 

And I would love to be in the room when it happens, because it’s gonna be good. Because all these proponents and opponents? Sorry, Mr. Exum, but they aren’t superheroes or supervillians. They are people in our community. They are parents. They are grandparents. They are neighbors. 

They are caring, involved individuals who recognize issues and want to help fix them. They just happen to have disagreed on the best way to accomplish that. 

So yes, let’s sit down and have THAT conversation. Let’s move past this interesting yet distracting proposal and let our teachers teach. Let our leaders lead. Let our students succeed.

And let’s help make THAT happen. Together. 

Sincerely,

Renee Shoop

Signal Mountain, Tn.



Roy Exum: The Goal: The Truth

As of late yesterday afternoon, the American citizens have believed there would be a hearing this week like no other since 1776. No matter where I turn, it seems like the claims from a drunken night involving two minors, this over 30 years ago, has morphed into a political donnybrook, mesmerized our nation, and dashed any civility we have towards one another worse than when Moses ... (click for more)

Time To Address School Culture And Chronic Behavior Problems

School culture can have a variety of descriptors, that are not universally identified. In many ways it is similar to the characterization of pornography by Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964). School culture is the set of core values that shape patterns of behavior, attitudes and expectations in a school. For educators it ... (click for more)

City Council Considering Possible Curbs On Steep Slope, Flood Plain Development

The City Council, which is considering possible curbs on steep slope and flood plain development, heard a presentation on the topic from the Regional Planning Agency staff on Tuesday. Councilman Darrin Ledford said a public hearing will come next. He said the council hears frequent criticism of development on steep hillsides and lowlands, "and I expect a great turnout for the ... (click for more)

Judge Denies New Trial For Unjolee Moore In 2010 Murder

Criminal Court Judge Don Poole has denied a new trial for a man convicted of a 2010 murder. Unjolee Moore, at a recent hearing, claimed that he made a confession after being beaten by a detective and held for over 13 hours while handcuffed behind his back. He a lso said he had ineffective assistance of counsel. His current lawyer, Daniel Murphy, said he was able to obtain ... (click for more)

Cleveland Sweeps Ooltewah 3-0 For Third Straight 5-3A Volleyball Title

CLEVELAND, Tenn. – Tuesday’s District 5-3A volleyball match pitting visiting Ooltewah against Cleveland at Raider Arena was heavily weighted toward the Lady Blue Raiders. “I felt like we had a lot of advantages tonight,” Cleveland coach Patricia Flowers said. “Home court, Senior Night, Pink Out, with a lot of emotions and that helped us.” The Lady Blue Raiders started strong ... (click for more)

Silverdale Rally Clips Notre Dame, 3-2

Every high school volleyball team wants to be playing its best as the regular season winds down and the post-season tournaments begin. That is surely the case for the Silverdale Lady Seahawks as they won a big match at home against district foe Notre Dame. The Lady Irish had prevailed by a 3-1 margin in an earlier match at Notre Dame, so the outcome of Tuesday’s match determined ... (click for more)