Across the table from me sat one of the most brilliant scholars I have ever known. Beside him sat his wife, equally blessed in wisdom and an expert in what I wanted to know: What can the Chattanooga community do to break the cycle of perpetual poverty? The state of Tennessee will soon take over five of our worst schools because we have failed. The difference between those five and the next 15 are miniscule and I’ll bet you a dollar to your dime the state doesn’t have a cut dog’s chance of success.
In front of me was John Friedl, the retired provost at UT-Chattanooga, who has just bedazzled Signal Mountain with a genius study of how to make that community’s school great. To his right sat his wife, who Dr. Friedl assured me has tremendous insight, and Sylvia – the perfect equal to an intellectual giant -- most certainly doesn’t disappoint. Even though the Signal Mountain schools will stay in the county district, some of the thoughts and ideas the feasibility committee formed will most certainly be utilized.
Here’s what you should know: Twice a week, the Friedls take part in a bless-ed First Centenary Methodist outreach where they are joined by others from the church to tutor some inner-city children in a better chance they will learn to read. The program lasts all year and not only do these forgotten kids get four days of after-school tutoring they get another blessing that they may not otherwise – a night-time meal.
This Christmas the second-grader who we know adores the Friedls got a present from his tutors – a book on sports. He was so overjoyed and filed with emotion it was breath-taking and soon he told John he now has two books! Dr. Friedl asked him about the other and the child smiled. “The one you gave me last year.”
Also at play is the fact there is a high chair in the Friedl kitchen. Their granddaughter, now 3 ½, comes by often. Because of her parents and grandparents, the little girl already has a firmer stance on education than the second grader. That’s not the second grader's fault nor his mom’s but it's life. So my big quest is to learn how can our abundantly-blessed community drive ignorance and apathy out of our poverty areas as though they were snakes in Ireland?
I know children are not born stupid. I also know that not one inner-city child had a say about their circumstances at birth. Most of all, I have come to realize the success of education begins at 3 ½, not when we learn 65 percent of our high school graduates must take remedial classes at Chattanooga State. By then it is too late.
Understand this: when 60 percent of our third graders in public school cannot read at grade level, that’s literally a guarantee of failure because – think this through -- they can never catch up. I asked Dr. Friedl if his second grader was at grade level – overall – and he said no. “I don’t know who decided first grade should start at age six. That means kindergarten begins at age five and, if what we are told is true, 50 percent of our children going into kindergarten are not prepared to do it.”
“We have 12 grades,” he pointed out, “Why not 13? The earliest schools were designed for white landowners. Summer vacations were so children could help their families on the farm. Today we have no farms so let’s go to school all year. Or let’s make other changes based of how we live today that will assure success.”
The Friedls are huge proponents of mandatory pre-school – most certainly for four-year-olds and, in a perfect world, starting at age 3. Their granddaughter goes to pre-school three days a week at a cost of roughly $200 per month. Do you know how few families in our community can bear that? Forget poverty, I’m including everybody in the Chattanooga environs where the great majority live from week to week.
What the Tennessee legislature doles out to colleges is obscene. As of now about 60 percent of students make it through UT-Knoxville. We’ve got it horribly wrong – not a handful of our inner-city children will ever go to college but right now 50 percent can’t cut it in kindergarten. This is easy to see - the majority of our resources should be invested in preschool instead of anywhere else in all of education.
There are three very notable phenomena in the year 2018. First, this year Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day will fall on the same day (Feb. 14). Then, Easter Sunday and April Fool’s Day will both be on April 1. But the best is that this is an election year and we can absolutely force mandatory pre-school in Hamilton County. We can do it – demand it – at the voting booth this year. If you want to make a real difference, embrace the child at the stage where the kid’s cognitive learning process begins. Sylvia and John Friedl are adamant this is where we must start. If every child was “ready” for Kindergarten, it is a virtual guarantee we will no longer have 60 percent of the third graders in our very neighborhoods who cannot read at grade level.
Find one politician who says we cannot afford it and tell them if they think poverty from age 18 until death is a better bargain, any such a cad should receive no campaign donations and deserves not one vote. Every state legislator is up for re-election and we can defeat any who fail to pledge our money to elementary education rather than higher education. If we could force it state wide it would change the entire future of Tennessee. The voters must hold these people accountable.
In 2018 we’ll elect a new governor and a new senator. Don’t give your vote to anyone who isn’t willing to earn it. We need quality high school graduates if we are ever going to snap the chains of poverty.
America is mad right now. Some are downright mean. For Hamilton County to ever make a dent in our failures in education -this is crucial - we’ve got to embrace the very ones who fail on the tests! The Hamilton County commissioners should be reminded at every turn the FY2018 budget that was approved included a 1.9 percent increase in education. Eight of nine voted for it. Oh, they’ll point to their heroism in grabbing the mileage tax but that’s B.S. (“blowing smoke”) to hide the 1.9 percent vote. I want to know what each running for re-election plans to do in the next four years. What about 2019?
I can’t name a more disheartening day in 2017 when not one county commissioner challenged our public education horrors. There is no doubt our public education is in the tank. We’ve got a great superintendent and his new staff is awesome. We have good teachers but until we get hundreds of others just like Sylvia and John Friedl, “big moves” will not happen. Nobody asked them to get involved – they saw a need and want to fill it.
How many others want to make a difference?