Berke: Reading is key: Mayor starts book drive to spark opportunity

Berke: Reading is key: Mayor starts book drive to spark opportunity

March 16th, 2014 by By Mayor Andy Berke in Opinion Columns

Mayor Andy Berke, right, signs a book for Jamya Robinson after concluding a news conference held March 10, 2014, at Westside Recreation Center to announce a reading initiative for the city.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

How to help

What: Collect and drop off your favorite new or used children books

When: Today through April 9. Book distribution will be April 12 for the national "Drop Everything and Read Day"

Where: At any McKay's Used Books store, any Barnes and Noble, or any of our 17 youth and family develoment centers, formerly called city recreation centers

By now, the old saying about literacy has become a cliché: "The most important thing for our kids is teaching them to read" or "reading at grade level by third grade is the best indicator of a child's success."

We know these sayings by heart for a good reason - because they are true. As we build our city's future by investing in youth, having engaged readers is a key foundational brick.

When I came into office almost a year ago, I pledged to make the city a player in education even though the county controls the school system. Education is critical to our future for two reasons. First, we live in the innovation century, where creativity and complex thought is central to growth sectors of the economy. As a result, for young Chattanoogans to compete in an economy largely driven by technology and earn middle-class wages, they need to aspire to a two- or four-year degree or a professional certificate.

Second, education - and reading in particular - is a moral issue. It allows us to set our own course, to read the Bible or spend time with a story at bedtime with our kids and grandkids. People can live fulfilling lives and have great jobs without an education, but the odds increase greatly when they have academic success.

That's why throughout my career I have consistently worked to put kids first. In the state Senate, I cosponsored the Complete College Tennessee Act, which worked to hold our universities and colleges accountable for results, and First to the Top, which brought more than $500 million into our state for K-12 education. I also passed the first law in Tennessee to track and encourage parental involvement.

Since moving to City Hall, I have taken this same approach of making education a priority. Within one week of being inaugurated, I restructured the entire city government, transforming our former recreation areas into Youth & Family Development (YFD) Centers. One of the most satisfying moments of my first year in office was seeing where members of the community painted an old weight room to transform it into a reading room stocked with literacy software and children's books.

This new emphasis on reading has happened throughout city government. We now have a literacy computer initiative in every YFD center. To date, more than 800 kids have done 5,825 hours of literacy training, with 940 more people enrolled to begin soon. I spent time last Monday with Dedrick, a 3rd-grader at Brown Academy, who showed me how he was learning to read better by unscrambling letters and turning them into words on computers at the West Side YFD Center. Watching his progress, as well as the other kids around the room, told me we are on the right track.

But educating our children is not the job of any one entity. It takes all of us working together to ensure each child has access to opportunity - schools, churches, parents, teachers, and local government. That's why, last week I started a citywide book drive to collect books and distribute them to needy families.

I need your help. Please take time to drop off your favorite new or used children books at any McKay's Used Books, Barnes and Noble, or any of our 17 YFD Centers.

Chattanoogans understand that a city as great as ours needs to provide a path to opportunity for our kids. It is the smart thing to do; it is also the right thing to do. I look forward to seeing these books move from the collection barrels to family homes to the kids' hands.

Andy Berke is the mayor of Chattanooga, and a former member of the Tennessee Senate.