Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Justin Robertson reassured the Rotary Club on Wednesday that the district will take Tennessee’s new third grade retention law in stride as much as possible, without big blows to budget or staff. The law uses the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) test to identify struggling readers who may be required to repeat third grade.
“It’s not going to impact as many kids as we think,” Dr. Robertson said, listing exceptions for students who have been retained before, students who are learning to speak English, and students with disabilities.
“Intervention needs to happen in kindergarten,” he said. He said Hamilton County will begin to push more reading resources to kindergarten and first grade and “hopefully make decisions there with families.” Repeating kindergarten prevents later problems, he said, and he wants the statewide conversation to follow and talk more about early childhood education.
He praised a new partnership with the city of Chattanooga announced last week to establish a Future Ready Institute at Tyner Academy this fall for high schoolers to earn an associate credential in child development.
Dr. Robertson said that, although the state and local nonprofits including United Way and Girls, Inc. have pledged short-term support for law requirements, as in tutoring students to avoid retention, those requirements may change as the law continues to be amended, and the district will have to add long-term funding.
Dr. Robertson said the district will continue to explore workforce development in place of college with local government.
“For a number of years we have ignored other paths,” he said. “As a school system we want to be a big partner in that.”
Dr. Robertson said that 18 of Hamilton County’s 76 buildings are rated to be in “fair” or “poor” condition, and he wants to lower that number to 10 buildings in the next five years.
“We have a facilities problem in Hamilton County,” he said.
He said that the budget cannot rely on bonds for those funds anymore.
“Taxes may have to look different,” he said.
Dr. Robertson also spoke of making “wise decisions” about consolidating school buildings. He described a five-mile stretch of Hixson Pike that connects Rivermont Elementary, Dupont Elementary, Hixson Elementary and Alpine Crest Elementary schools, each with 200 or 300 students.
Dr. Robertson said that fewer, bigger buildings would save money, but bigger schools can also offer more services, he said.
“They can go hand in hand,” he said.
A small high school may have to choose between offering Advanced Placement history and AP English, its athletic teams may have barely enough players, and the band may be too sparse, he said.
Dr. Robertson advocated for social, emotional and academic development (SEAD) coach positions in every school, which he renamed student support specialists.
He said students who aren’t eating and sleeping enough at home can’t learn at school.
“We have to step in,” he said. “We have to fill gaps. We have a moral obligation to support them.”
He said school counselors have already been increased to one for every 350 students, but they should be increased until there's one for every 250 students, with half-time or full-time social workers at every school.