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District Profile

Reaching Achievement

Hamilton County (Tenn.) Schools

Clifton Hill Elementary teacher Rebecca Harper remembers what the school was like before Jesse B. Register became Hamilton County's superintendent: unkempt buildings with no inside doors, carpeting likely laid the year Harper was born, asbestos, and a pervasive feeling of neglect.

"I don't want to sound too negative, but I would almost say it was ... [There] was a very negative morale," Harper says timidly, too kind to reveal much more.

No wonder things felt negative. Hamilton County and Chattanooga Public Schools were on the brink of merging, and the two demographically different districts--Hamilton is 95 percent white, Chattanooga is largely minority--didn't yet know how to work together. Nine elementary schools were underperforming across the system, faculty were too inexperienced or too burnt out to teach effectively, and the buildings were old.

But that was nearly eight years ago. Today, Register's teacher incentives, system initiatives, and the help of a good foundation have helped make Hamilton County the picture of increasing achievement. Hamilton's nine previously underperforming elementary schools are now outperforming 90 percent of Tennessee's schools; 77 percent of the district reads at or above the appropriate level, and the high school drop-out rate is down while achievement levels are up.

Getting personal: "Before Dr. Register, it was nothing as personalized as this," says Harper. Teaching in Hamilton County now means no more boring system-wide in-services; faculty can tailor professional development to the needs of their school.

Balanced approach: Clifton Elementary School has used consultants that advise on better understanding its predominantly low-income student body, and teach teachers creative ways to achieve one of Hamilton's missions: balanced literacy across the system.

Better recruiting: Coupled with annual and group-incentive salary bonuses and free master's degrees in urban education, "It's all part of recruiting--and keeping--the best faculty," says Register. "Placing a high level of importance on faculty [has caused] a huge turnaround in quality."

We want action: Schools for a New Society; five little words, and one big initiative. In 2001, seven high-profile districts across the country received money from the Carnegie Corp. for high school reform.

Preventing drop-outs: In four years, Hamilton County has used the $8 million for creating a career-based magnet high school and a ninth-grade transition program that gives more attention to students in a year when the drop-out rate is high; mandating that all students graduate with college-bound class requirements.

Flexibility: The district also opened Hamilton County High School, a school for students 16 and over who might not graduate high school otherwise without this new school's more flexible schedule and curriculum.

It's good to have friends: Little else is better than receiving $8 million for reform, unless you get $6 million more from a group close to home. Separate from the school system, Chattanooga's Public Education Foundation is Hamilton's "critical friend" that lends support and a critical eye, and money to help a state that often ranks 47th, 48th or 49th in the country for per-pupil spending.

Partner programs: "Most school districts have foundations within them [but] a lot of districts don't want to take the time to create a partnership with them," says PEF President Dan Challener, whose three children attend Hamilton schools. "Dr. Register has been very forward-thinking: What the superintendent has built has been extraordinary. Not enough districts are willing [to participate,] and we feel blessed."

Jennifer Esposito is a freelance writer based in Boston, Mass.