Roy Exum: Ooltewah’s Redemption

Thursday, August 24, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Before a monthly meeting of the Hamilton County School Board, I was having a conversation with Deputy Sheriff Jake Thomas when I asked him what he did for the department. “I’m a School Resource Officer at Ooltewah,” he said, and when I raised an eyebrow he added, “It’s the best school in Hamilton County. (Principal) Robin Copp has completely turned it around and I adore going to work.”

Last month when Robin was honored by the County Commission as the district’s Principal of the Year, I had a chance to pass along the compliment and it fell off Robin like water on a duck’s back. “Jake Thomas is without doubt the best SRO I have ever worked with … this award,” she said as she held her Principal of the Year award, “is not about me but is a tribute to our faculty, kids and the Ooltewah family. We have a phenomenal school.”

Now I see where Robin is among nine being considered as the best principal in Tennessee. We’ll find out in October but I’ll go ahead and up the ante’ – go “all in” -- she is the most miraculous leader of any school in the United States. Two years ago the horrific rape of a sophomore basketball player by his teammates and charges of child neglect made national news and decimated the staff.

In the Nashville paper a coach was quoted when he said he prayed his school system never wanted to experience “another Ooltewah” and the nation’s top news outlets made Ooltewah to be the centerpiece of Hamilton County’s failures in public education. “But when I was told I had been chosen to be the next principal, I was really excited,” Robin told me.

“What happened was a tragedy consumed hundreds of great things that we going on every day. So this time last year, the goal was to ‘find the good’ and celebrate it. I feel like anybody could take these teachers, these children, and this community and excel. All we did was reinforce what everybody already knew,” she laughed at the aura of happiness that is apparent among the 1,600 students.

Asked the one thing that triggered the stunning reversal, Copp said it was “The Positivity Challenge.” The idea was borne to interview each teacher on camera as they were asked the question: “Which student at Ooltewah inspires you, and why?”

The media class filmed the answers and created a tape that has gone “viral” around the county. “The project really unified the school and, as you have seen on the YouTube tape, there are some pretty special things we never expected. Everybody in the school loved it and, while we borrowed the idea from another school, we got dozens of calls when the Ooltewah tape went viral. Otherschools are doing it,” said the veteran principal (To view the tape, CLICK HERE)

What is unbelievable is that some of the interviews were made just months after the scandal. Make no mistake, as Copp pointed out, “When the news went public the whole school was affected by the tragedy. No … the whole Chattanooga area was. I know that I couldn’t get it off my mind because I learned long ago what a loving and giving place Ooltewah really is.

“We spent a lot of time trying to change people’s impressions from what they thought Ooltewah was like to what it is really like. Our parents want to be involved, and our community wants to be involved. The success of public education is community involvement but, I must say, Ooltewah has enjoyed our family feeling for a long time.

“In early 2016 I followed the aftermath and all that happened very closely so – to be completely honest -- I jumped at the chance to come here,” she said. “One key element was our assistant principals. I got to keep Stephanie Allen and I knew what great people Brad Jackson and Lesa Johnson were. Brad has made a huge difference as our athletic director and Marvin Smith, a longtime educator, serves as an assistant principal on a part-time basis. I never dreamed we would click so well and so quickly.”

“Last year there was uncertainty at the Central Office without a full time superintendent but nothing could have predicted the Woodmore horror. I think that under interim superintendent (Kirk) Kelly the Central Office staff did a good job and the fresh leadership plan turned out well,” she said, again trying a deflect the shine of Ooltewah’s banner year away from her brilliant leadership.

Asked about the newly-hired superintendent, Robin laughed, “You mean my boss? How should I answer that! Seriously, I haven’t gotten to know Dr. (Bryan) Johnson very well but from what I have seen, he could really be the answer we need. He has some wonderful ideas and, on the first day of school, he was at Ooltewah talking to teachers, students and introducing himself. He seems to be quite a guy, even if he is my boss,” again the former Sale Creek principal laughed.

“I was really hoping we would get his children,” Robin confided, “but East Hamilton is a wonderful school and they’ll love it.”

When East Hamilton was first built, Ooltewah’s enrollment was sliced from about 2,000 students to 1,100 but as the region has become flooded with new homes, Ooltewah is back to 1,635 and is expected to grow even more. “The population drives enrollment but people in the area know there are hundreds of good things happening at Ooltewah High School,” said the Principal of the Year.

The sign on school secretary Angie Shumaker’s desk proclaims, “Mistakes don’t happen … lessons do.” But who could have ever guessed it would be so fast and so brilliant?

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