Charged with the task of renovating a 17,000-square-foot space into a fully operating STEM school by Aug. 10, local officials swung sledgehammers into sheetrock walls inside the former Olan Mills Building Tuesday morning. 

Although the gesture was symbolic, it was indicative of actual demolition inside the facility that was scheduled to begin later that afternoon, less than 24 hours after the Hamilton County School system was notified of its $1.85-million award by the state for the creation of a STEM school and hub. 

Officials held a press conference at the adjacent Wacker Institute on the campus of Chattanooga State Community College to discuss future plans for the project.


“Eight months ago we began with an opportunity that soon evolved into a vision,” Superintendent Rick Smith said. “Today, now, it’s time to make that vision into a reality.”

The school will serve students at the high school level, with a STEM hub working alongside and disseminating the best practices found within the school to all K-12 schools in the region. Along with Chattanooga State, UTC, Cleveland State Community College and other institutions of higher education, the hub will help expand STEM benefits to students in schools across Southeast Tennessee. 

When the school opens, it will include a beginning class of 75 students-a number officials hope to eventually grow to 300. Smith said each school within the Hamilton County school system would be represented in the student body, with the number of seats per school apportioned based on respective school populations. 

Applications for students wishing to be granted admission to the school will be available later this week, with a due date for submission scheduled for April 20. Selection will take place on April 30, with a lottery process similar to the one used for Hamilton County’s magnet schools. 

A release submitted by the STEM initiative said the school hoped to have a principal hired between March and April. 

“We’ve got to find the right leader, that right leaders who is going to attract the right teachers,” Smith said. “They’re going to have to work well together, and they’re going to have to work in teams. The energy level is going to have to be tremendous because there’s going to be a lot of time in the first year or two spent on developing a culture that’s not like the culture you would find in a traditional high school.”

Although the state grant will provide a significant portion of getting the new school underway, Smith added that the funds could not be used for the build-out portion of the project, estimated to cost between $650,000 and $750,000. Smith said the school system was partnering with local business and industry leaders to raise the founds from partners. 

“I’m very encouraged by that,” he said. “We’ve been intentional and will continue to visit with business and industry people about that.”

Along with Smith, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, Public Education Foundation President Dan Challener, Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce President Tom Edd Wilson, UTC Education Director Valerie Rutledge and Chattanooga State President Jim Catanzaro were on hand for the press conference. 

The STEM school is scheduled to open Aug. 10.