Open since August 2011, the Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence has provided families with an alternative to other local elementary schools. Enough families have been choosing Chattanooga Charter that it is now expanding both its curriculum and its accommodations.
When the school opened its doors in August 2011 in a space formerly occupied by the YMCA on Brainerd Road, it offered only kindergarten through second grade. Each subsequent year, it took on more students and added the next grade, allowing it to expand its curriculum as its inaugural group of 168 students progressed.
“We like slow growth. You can’t be all things to all people all of the time,” says Marcia Griffin, founder and executive director.
For the 2014-2015 school year, Chattanooga Charter added fifth grade and accepted more students, bringing its total number of pupils to 394. With a large number of its students poised to enter middle school, Griffin and her staff faced a choice: Do they stop at fifth grade or continue to expand their program?
The parents of their students chose for them. “They asked us to expand,” Griffin says.
Hamilton County accepted Griffin’s charter for a middle school last August, clearing the way for the expansion. But with the school bursting at the seams, adding another grade meant finding, preparing, and opening a second campus.
Through an unexpected phone call, Griffin learned about the former site of Oak Grove Elementary School, located on Willow Street. The old brick building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places in Hamilton County, had been empty for some time, but was not beyond repair. Griffin thought it was perfect.
“Someone called, said they had heard we were running out of space, and told me about the building,” Griffin says. “We were immensely blessed.”
Chattanooga Charter will rent the new location, just as it is renting its current facility.
Even though Chattanooga Charter is expanding to include middle school, it will continue its policy of slow growth, adding only sixth grade for the 2015-2016 school year. However, it will move its fourth through sixth graders to the new location to free up space at its Brainerd Road facility, where it will continue to teach kindergarten through third grade.
Chattanooga Charter began as a vision to start a school in Chattanooga the Jamaican-born Griffin had while living in Florida. Upon moving to Hamilton County, she says she saw the need for more choices in education. She applied for a charter in October 2009, but Hamilton County initially turned her down. She persevered, and received approval to open the school the following June.
“It was a challenge, but we were like the little engine that could,” she says, smiling broadly. “We kept going and going and going until they approved us.”
Griffin describes Chattanooga Charter as a non-traditional public school. While the State of Tennessee funds the school, it is separate from the Hamilton County Department of Education. Students do not pay to attend classes, but they do have to apply. In addition, students are required to wear uniforms, and classrooms are “gender specific,” meaning that although the school accepts both boys and girls, it teaches them separately.
“That’s going to be especially important as we start teaching middle school,” Griffin says, laughing.
Chattanooga Charter teaches the Core Knowledge curriculum, which Griffin calls “content rich and demanding.” The school introduces the program at kindergarten and teaches each new portion of its sequence at the appropriate grade. Griffin says this would make it difficult for a student to enter the school at a higher grade. That rarely happens, though, because most of Chattanooga Charter’s students stay at the school from year to year.
As Chattanooga Charter has undergone growing pains, Griffin says she’s relied more than ever on her staff. “They are the wind beneath my wings,” she says. “They move Heaven and Earth to teach these kids, and they treat them like their own. That’s what I require. Being in charge of 394 children is an awesome responsibility. You’re affecting 394 homes.”
Chattanooga Charter will begin classes at its new location on Aug. 13. Until then, workers will continue the process of cleaning and renovating the interior and exterior of the building, which Griffin says is “looking beautiful.”
The school does have a few openings for children who will be entering kindergarten this fall. Parents and guardians may apply at 5600 Brainerd Road, Suite A-24. For more information, call (423) 710-1121.