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?

Roy Exum: Lee In A Landslide

The first time I met Bill Lee, the guy who is triggering a huge turnout of Tennessee voters across the state, I instantly liked him, admired him, and must have told a dozen friends that day we have the most exciting guy going to the Governor’s Mansion we’ve ever had. The best reason is because Bill Lee is real. His opponent, Karl Dean, is a Democrat and a longtime politician. Go ... (click for more)

Supporting Ruth Jeno

Citizens of Red Bank,   I am writing to offer my endorsement for Ruth Jeno, candidate for the At Large, Red Bank Commission.   I have known Ruth Jeno for many years, first as neighbor, served with her on the Red Bank Vision Committee and the Red Bank Chamber. As a commissioner, she will represent the people of Red Bank to the best of her ability. Ruth Jeno ... (click for more)

County Schools To Push Forward With Equity Effort; Magnet Schools To Get More Diversity With Lottery Change

The county schools will push forward with an equity effort that appeared to have been paused after board members Rhonda Thurman and Joe Smith in May said  they rejected the idea that county schools need to “racially and economically integrate.” An equity task force did not meet for several months and the schools did not move forward on hiring an outside consultant to help ... (click for more)

Chattanooga Red Wolves SC To Build Soccer-Specific Stadium For 2020 Season

Chattanooga Red Wolves Soccer Club is building a state-of-the-art, soccer-specific facility, where the team will host home games beginning in 2020. For its inaugural season, the club will play at Chattanooga Christian School’s David Stanton Field in 2019.   David Stanton Field seats 3,500, and the club plans to install additional temporary seating allowing up to approximately ... (click for more)

Powerful Loretto Smacks Sale Creek, 3-1, For Class 1A State Volleyball Title

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Loretto ruined what could have been a nice little celebration for Sale Creek on Thursday at the TSSAA Class 1A state volleyball tournament at Middle Tennessee State University. Sale Creek (40-8), appearing in their fourth tournament and the title match for the first time, were victimized by a constant offensive attack and the potent Lady Mustangs rolled ... (click for more)

Briarcrest Beats Baylor In State Volleyball

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Baylor and Briarcrest have played in the last three Division II, Class AA state volleyball championship matches and the Lady Saints have now won two, including Thursday’s 3-1 victory at MTSU’s Murphy Center. The Lady Saints have an outstanding team with a roster of outstanding players.   The same can be said for the Lady Red Raiders, but Briarcrest ... (click for more)