When schools Supt. Bryan Johnson and I shared breakfast on Monday, he told me a wonderful story. Bryan grew up in Nashville and, when he was in the eighth grade, his very best friend got into some serious trouble. That was when his mother set her sights on a different high school for her son.
“I was zoned to a fairly good high school, with kids from what you’d called middle class down to poverty. But Mother enrolled me in a different high school where the student population was like two cities – we had affluent families and we had folks like me. My dad was a mechanic and my mother was a social worker. Dad preached at a small church on Sundays and we were, you know, just middle-of-the-road folks.
“But I would say that when my mom put me in a different high school away from my old friends, I had to make new ones and it dramatically changed my life,” he said. “I was able to see things and learn some things about life that maybe I wouldn’t have if I’d stayed on the path I was on. Even with that, when I would come home after school, I better have my books. I’d tell mom, ‘Don’t worry … I got it right here,” he tapped his head, yet mother wouldn’t budge. ‘Show me your books!’”
I had wanted to get into an easy conversation with the superintendent, now as he faces his second year in a promising turn-around of our public schools. On the Wednesday before last he had a drug scare at Brainerd, an unfortunate video that blamed girls for uniform policy and made national news, and a couple of other events “that really made me ask what the h-e-double-l am I doing here,” he can now laugh about that dizzying day.
“The answer is we are doing good things. Smart things. Not until this school year got underway could I compare what our staff and teachers have accomplished, and I wish you could see what we do. The fact we are being successful, that we can see the improvement, makes us want to go faster and faster but let me just say we are making progress in almost every area of public education at a faster rate than I ever dreamed. I promise this is the truth.”
Bryan sees the Hamilton County schools “as a calling. I believe I didn’t just land here … my faith had a lot to do with it. In Clarksville I was happy, working in the school system, an elder in my church, a great place to raise a family … but the superintendent there, who is a great friend and mentor, really encouraged me because I have a 'servant’s heart.' Now that we are going into the second year, I believe very strongly this is where I am meant to be.”
Asked about the biggest challenges, Johnston said simply: “Nothing’s changed …. 21 years ago, when the city and county schools merged, the top three headaches were the priority schools (poverty), transportation and facilities. The same three things are our biggest problems today.
“I don’t believe there has ever been a better effort than what we are trying to do in our priority schools, but the thrill is that these students are responding. There are so many non-school parts to the puzzle and this is where we are inviting the very communities where these students live to help us, particularly with ‘generational poverty’ where the hope is to break away from the cycle,” he explained.
“Transportation will always be a problem in any school district that covers 543 square miles. It is what it is,” he said, “but the tough part is trying to project growth patterns. An example? Let’s say we have a big apartment complex where we figure 30-35 students will ride the bus. But, on the very first day, you’ve got 61 children who show up.
“We are placing a huge emphasis on ‘technical learning.’ The old Kirkman High is still a legend and people think we should do that again, but the demographics have changed so greatly a self-standing technical school is not practical. In Kirkman’s greatest years people lived in town but now they live not only in the suburbs but in a big circle around the city. One single location is just not feasible … I wish it was…”
“What we are trying to do is blend technical classes into almost every high school,” Johnson said. “For instance, we’re teaching welding at Howard, construction trades at East Ridge, and realize we have to have several satellite locations to be effective.
“Chattanooga State is a huge component for our graduates to get great jobs. They have a program where 95 percent of the students have jobs before they graduate … we’ve got to enhance that education model because our high school students, once they get technical skills, are in the highest demand to join the labor force in the county’s history.”
The facilities are just the opposite. It has been well-documented that there is over $300 million in deferred maintenance and the average school building is over 40 years old. “I am pleased we have taken a hard look at where we are and what we must do. As you know, we are building some new schools and updating others. The new middle school at Howard, for example, will be all new but in a very usable building that has been there for years.
“Everybody knows we need better facilities but, I’ve got to tell you, I am more of a teaching superintendent. I go back to basics – let’s teach children. Look at what Nick Saban has done with Alabama football. They are not a real flashy team but are masters at blocking and tackling. They strive every day to get better at the fundamentals. That’s the way I want our public schools to be,” said Johnson.
“Don’t worry … we are getting there. I know we are.”