I can’t think of a more appropriate way to relaunch our website and blog, than to highlight some of the new ways in which Benwood is approaching our work through Chattanooga 2.0 – our community’s effort to build the Smartest Community in the South.

Benwood has invested in and supported local public education for years and we care deeply about our community’s responsibility to ensure a hopeful and successful path for children and families. But, plenty of evidence clearly indicates that we, as a community are failing many of these children and families when it comes to linking them to meaningful opportunity. Consider this:

  • By the time children in Hamilton County enroll in Kindergarten, 60% are already behind in terms of having the basic skills to be ready for school (Read20 K Readiness Assessment, 2015)
  • While most students that graduate from Hamilton County enroll in a postsecondary program (70%), less than half of those students are likely to obtain a degree (Public Education Foundation, College Enrollment and Completion Data 2007-2015)
  • One in six Hamilton County youth, aged 16-24, are neither in school or working (Measure of America. “Zeroing in On Race and Place.” 2015)
  • Hamilton County is one of the worst in the country when it comes to economic mobility. A child born into the bottom 20th percentile of income distribution in our community has just a 6% chance of making it into the top fifth of income distribution as an adult. (New York Times, “In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters.” 2013)

While much attention has been focused on the role of the public schools in improving outcomes for students, these data points are symptoms of larger systemic issues. The school system must play an essential role in improving opportunity, but they can’t do it alone.

We believe this creates a moral imperative for us at Benwood to renew our energies, focus our efforts, and partner with others in our community as never before to re-imagine an infrastructure of opportunity that connects every resident to a hopeful path. For us this means participating in Chattanooga 2.0.

Last month, Chattanooga 2.0 released its latest report that outlines a plan of action to improve educational opportunities in our community from cradle to career. Unlike the somber, data-heavy report that was released in December, this latest report is focused on vision, opportunity and action. It outlines the results of an intensive 100-day planning process, in which leaders, residents, educators, parents and students from across our community took part in a conversation about the future we want for our kids in Hamilton County. Based on countless conversations, meetings, and workgroup sessions, the report lays out one big vision, two bold goals, 10 urgent strategies and a set of common indicators that will help us all pull together and provide and the support required to make real progress.

Throughout the process, the engagement and optimism from across the community has been overwhelming. At the same time, there have been many skeptics and leaders who have leveled tough questions and accusations about the motives, implications, and viability of the Chattanooga 2.0 effort. And rightfully so — education, and how we connect residents to workforce opportunities, is the most important issue our community faces — and any effort with such a broad scope and lofty goals deserves the scrutiny of our community. And so, this is an attempt to answer a few of most common questions and critiques we’ve heard about Chattanooga 2.0 to date.

We’ve tried big things before to improve education – and nothing has worked. Isn’t this just more of the same? It’s true that there have been numerous efforts at many different levels – federal, state, local — and scales (classroom, school, community) focused on improving educational and workforce outcomes in many different ways. For our own part, the Benwood Foundation has learned first hand that not every well-planned or well intentioned education initiative is successful. In 1999 we launched The Benwood Initiative, in partnership with the Public Education Foundation and HCDE – a 12-year education reform program that showed promising early success, but over time, that success was not maintained or expanded. Instead of pridefully brushing this effort under the rug, we have made an effort to learn from both the successes and failures of the Benwood Initiative.

The Chattanooga 2.0 effort has focused on two key elements that were lacking in the Benwood Initiative and other efforts: broad community engagement and ownership and focusing on the continuum of education from cradle through career.

The success of a plan is dependent on the people who support it. It is vital that diverse members of the community have a clear understanding of the issues at hand, are engaged in the planning process, and are willing to play their part. This goes for organizations, community leaders, and elected officials as well. Chattanooga 2.0 has convened stakeholders, businesses and organizations in a way that has never happened in this community before — and their buy-in, not just in terms of support, but commitment to implementing the plan is unprecedented in this community, and this continued commitment will be the key to success for 2.0.

In addition, we’ve learned that supporting children and ensuring education is a long-term process – and every step along the continuum is either an opportunity for growth, or a potential pitfall, especially for the most disadvantaged students. The Benwood Initiative was focused on the nine lowest performing elementary schools in the state, all nine resided within Hamilton County. We witnessed dramatic improvement in reading levels during the elementary years, but when those students reached high school, they were, on average, entering ninth grade at a 5th grade reading level, putting them at much higher risk for dropping out. The reality is that connecting students to meaningful opportunity requires a range of supports from within and outside of the school system — and we won’t be successful as a community until all of those pieces work together.

The strategies generated through Chattanooga 2.0 are intended to do just that — ensure that every piece of our infrastructure of opportunity is strong and effective, so that no students can fall through the cracks.

What gives 2.0 the right to tell our school system what to do? Why can’t they just let the school board do their job? The criticism might be fair — if Benwood were the sole driver of this effort, but nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the impetus for 2.0 came from a partnership between the Chamber of Commerce, the Hamilton County Department of Education, the Public Education Foundation and Benwood. Since then, over forty other organizations have engaged in and supported Chattanooga 2.0 — recognizing that education is the most important issue for our community — and coming to the table to play a role in improving opportunities for students.

The truth is whether young or old, with kids or without, we are all impacted by education issues in Hamilton County. The opportunities we provide our children today, will drive our success as a community tomorrow. If we continue to allow over half of our children to not be prepared for living wage jobs in this community — how will that affect our economy, our quality of life, and our neighborhoods in the coming years? We believe our community will be stronger when we begin viewing education and support for children as everyone’s responsibility — and Chattanooga 2.0 has moved us closer to this goal.

Chattanooga 2.0 is bigger than Benwood Foundation, the superintendent, the school board, and elected officials. This movement is a cross-generational reimagination of public education, not a legacy project of a single person or organization. Chattanooga 2.0 is a united effort amongst students, teachers, parents, school leadership, district and county government, business owners, community members, and local organizations. This isn’t an attempt to simply tell our school system how it should improve – it’s a movement to involve our entire community in reimagining what a 21st century education and workforce looks like in Hamilton County.

Chattanooga 2.0 has released its strategies, now what? The short answer is that now it’s time to get to work. As Chattanooga 2.0 partners – including HCDE, PEF, the Chamber, the United Way, UTC, Chattanooga State, and many others begin to implement the big strategies laid out in 2.0, Benwood and many other funding partners will be working to identify the ways in which we can provide support that helps to catalyze bold action. We’re particularly excited about the strategies that call for new partnerships and collaboration, like around increasing access to high quality early childhood programs, working to train, recruit and support the best teachers, or improving the network of supports for students once they enroll in our local colleges. We’re also excited about the innovative strategies being spearheaded by the school district and others – including how we can engage parents through new technology or how we can support teachers in driving 21st century learning in their classrooms and schools. Most of all, we’re excited about the ongoing opportunity that we will have to work together, across sectors and neighborhoods, across organizations and perspectives, to drive real progress around education and workforce opportunities in our community.

We look forward to updating you here on the progress around 2.0. In the meantime you can learn more about the strategies and get involved at