Melinda and I often say that of all the issues our foundation works on, education may be the hardest. It also may be the most inspiring.
During my visit to The Howard School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I had a powerful reminder of why this is.
Howard faces some very tough challenges: It ranks among the bottom 5 percent of high schools in Tennessee, with test scores and graduation rates well below state averages. More than 90 percent of its students, most of them African American and Latino, live in poverty. Less than 15 percent of Howard’s graduates go on to earn a college degree or post-secondary certificate.
Even so, I came away from my visit as excited about Howard as any school I’ve ever seen. What I experienced that was so inspiring is a community that’s come together to help turn around their school’s fortunes. Local businesses, community leaders, parents, teachers, and students are all determined to make Howard one of the best schools in the state. And they are starting to make progress.
To be sure, Howard has a long way to go on that journey. But the community is putting the pieces into place and doing the hard work necessary to improve student achievement, so all its students graduate ready for college or a career.
At the center of this effort is Howard’s principal, Dr. LeAndrea Ware, now in her second year leading the school. A proud graduate of Howard, Dr. Ware is passionate about her school’s long history—it recently celebrated its 150th anniversary—and understands the critical role it plays in shaping Chattanooga’s future. She is also one of the most energetic school leaders I’ve ever met. Her positivity is infectious. (This month, Dr. Ware was named principal of the year by the Tennessee Department of Education.)
When Dr. Ware arrived as principal, the school was struggling with a rapidly growing student body that doubled in size to more than 1,000 students in recent years. Many of the new students were non-English speaking and required language instruction. Absenteeism was a common problem, especially for students who were holding down full-time jobs to support their families. Few students were graduating prepared for college or a career.
One of the first actions Dr. Ware took as principal was to tap into the Chattanooga community for support. She hung a large banner in the school entrance and invited people to come sign it as a pledge to play a role in making Howard one of the fastest-improving schools in the state.
This was no publicity stunt. Dr. Ware understood that in Tennessee there was growing awareness among politicians, business leaders, educators, and local communities that improving schools is critical for the future of the state’s economy. In Chattanooga alone, there were thousands of skilled jobs in auto manufacturing, logistics, healthcare, insurance and technology. And the school system was not producing enough graduates prepared to fill them.
In 2015, the community created the Chattanooga 2.0 coalition, which aims to double the number of degrees and certificates awarded to high school graduates. Chattanooga 2.0, which our foundation supports, brought together 150 local organizations that are working to bridge the gap between Chattanooga’s classrooms and workforce needs of employers. (During my trip to Tennessee, I visited a local auto parts maker that joined in this effort by starting an apprenticeship program. You can read more about what I learned here.)
At Howard, Dr. Ware launched a series of new initiatives to boost student achievement. After realizing that many students were falling behind in their classes, she opened a Saturday school. Supported by parents and a local foundation, the Saturday school became an extra day for students to come in to get the help they need to catch up in their classes. Getting students to roll out of bed on a Saturday to come to school might sound impossible, but the program has been a success at Howard. Hundreds of students have turned out to take advantage of this opportunity.
Dr. Ware also wanted to motivate students by showing them the connections between their schoolwork and career opportunities. So, Howard launched Future Ready Institutes, small learning academies within the school that give students exposure to local industries, including health care and tourism. For the students, it’s a chance to explore possible careers. For local businesses, it’s a great way to recruit young talent to fill job openings.
I was also impressed by how Howard is using data to guide its advising system. Working with Chattanooga 2.0, the school keeps a laser-like focus on the performance of incoming ninth graders, sharing test scores, attendance, and grades with parents as well as students. This allows the school to understand key points when students might struggle, identify learning gaps, and address these challenges before students start falling behind.
While these efforts are still new, they have already helped improve attendance rates and academic progress at Howard. And Dr. Ware is only getting started. She continues to explore other efforts that will help Howard reach new levels of achievement.
At our foundation, we believe that thinking about education through the eyes of students, as Dr. Ware has, is critical for their success. We need to better understand the students’ journey from kindergarten to high school and onto college or a career. Where can we improve their experience? How can we prevent dropouts? What will keep students on a path to a good job and economic mobility?
Before I left Howard, Dr. Ware showed me the giant banner where community members had signed their names, committing to support Howard. The banner was filled with hundreds of signatures. I found a place to add my name. I also included a note. “I love your energy!” I wrote. I have no doubt that energy—from the community, students, and Dr. Ware—will fuel Howard’s continued improvement.