Chattanooga Schools Focus on Digital Inclusion and Economic Development


Chattanooga, known by an older generation for The Andrew Sisters song “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” is now becoming known as the leading U.S. community addressing digital equity. The effort is multi-layered and comprehensive, and its leadership starts at the top with its young mayor, Andy Berke. The school system, Hamilton County Department of Education, is a key partner in the effort, but other agencies and partners lead it.

The City of Chattanooga and Hamilton County are a terrific example of how efforts to address digital equity are increasingly at the heart of 21st century economic development efforts. When Berke was elected mayor in 2013, he launched Chattanooga Forward and one of the six task forces focused on making it Gig City. Community, corporate, and nonprofit leaders provided recommendations on digital inclusion and the new role that their economic development nonprofit – The Enterprise Center – would play. As a result, the Center was reorganized around three core areas: Innovation Economy, Entrepreneurship, and Digital Inclusion. Leaders involved in this effort stress that it took at least a year’s worth of planning to do it thoughtfully and gain community buy-in.

Smart Tip: It takes time to do it right.

As Chattanooga looked around the country for other examples of how other cities were addressing digital inclusion, they learned about Boston’s Tech Goes Home. In 2000, Tech Goes Home developed a model in Boston focusing on a three part strategy of: digital literacy, devices, and Internet access for low-income families needed for 21st century literacy. 

Chattanooga adopted the model and launched Tech Goes Home CHA, which is the digital inclusion effort of The Enterprise Center. Kelly McCarthy, Program Director for Digital Inclusion at The Enterprise Center, states, “Many cities try to create their own programs rather that adapting existing models. We didn’t want to lose six months to a year, and felt the Boston model worked.”

Smart Tip: Learn from others. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

While I said that Hamilton County Department of Education is not “leading” this digital inclusion effort, they certainly have been a core partner. 

The original Chattanooga Forward recommendations called leaders to work with local schools to add computer science to middle and high school curricula while focusing on schools as a means to address digital inclusion challenges. Education is at the core of the community’s digital inclusion efforts because both the Superintendent of Public Schools and Hamilton County Mayor serve on the board of The Enterprise Center. The school system has also provided key data to The Enterprise Center about the needs of students who don’t have access to technology when they leave school – only about 30% of families had robust Internet access at home at the start of these efforts. Likewise, the County is also a funder of Tech Goes Home CHA and the school system is implementing a variety of technology initiatives throughout middle and high schools, including an aggressive plan to become a one-to-one district.

Like many school districts, Hamilton County Department of Education has a community foundation dedicated to improving education – the Public Education Foundation, or PEF. PEF has been a key driver and funder for the digital inclusion efforts, and has been a bridge into the schools. In addition, the Benwood Foundation, a local foundation that supports innovation in Chattanooga, has been a key partner.

By becoming a one-to-one district, Hamilton County Department of Education and PEF planned to focus on not only at-school access, but also home access for all students, especially those from low-income families. If Chattanooga was going to be the Gig City, they needed high speed connectivity at school and at home.

Smart Tip: Partner with your school district or community foundations in your digital equity strategy. They bring not only funds, but also engagement of key leaders who want to improve the schools and the community.   

Working with Tech Goes Home CHA, schools host 15 hour digital literacy courses for students and families that lack access. Upon completion of the course, graduates can purchase a Chromebook for $50 and they learn about subsidized programs for Internet access, such as Comcast Internet Essentials, Freedom Pop, etc.

When I asked what they would have done differently if starting over, the immediate answer was they needed to define more clearly the “why.” There was some push-back, particularly in more affluent communities, about why these efforts were needed, and how digital inclusion was key to the economic success of the entire community.

Smart Tip: Define clearly “why” digital inclusion matters to the overall economic viability of your community.

In addition, they stressed that the central office of the school district needed more capacity to understand the shift in learning that would happen with the one-to-one environment at home and beyond.

Finally, these pioneers of digital inclusion noted that access to technology is not a silver bullet. While Chattanooga and Hamilton County have made incredible process, this is a journey and they are just getting started.

For more information, listen to a recent Blog Talk Radio show with Chattanooga Mayor Belke, as well as other digital equity advocates from cities around the country (including CoSN’s digital equity consultant, Anne Schwieger) talking about their efforts. Education leaders committed to addressing digital equity need partners in this effort, so start with talking to your city/county, business, and philanthropic leaders. Chattanooga is now known for being one of the first What Works cities identified by Bloomberg Philanthropies, rather than just the title of a catchy song from last century.

By Keith R. Krueger, CEO, Consortium of School Networking

Photo courtesy of the Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau
School Characteristics
Chattanooga Choo-Choo