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The exterior of Signal Mountain Middle High School on is seen in this photograph taken Wednesday, July 30, 2008.
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Former NFL star Herschel Walker talks with football players at Shiloh Christian School in Springdale Thursday afternoon. 9-11-03
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Jay Greeson

A week from tonight, Herschel Walker will be in town.

Yes, that Herschel Walker, the former University of Georgia Bulldogs star who can make a hard claim of being the best player in the history of college football's best conference.

In his three years in Athens, Walker lost as many Southeastern Conference games as you and your Uncle Fred did. Well, unless you or Fred actually played in the SEC, and if either of you did, you likely lost more.

Herschel was 18-0 in SEC games in his three years before going pro.

It's fitting that the best will be here Sept. 10 at 6 p.m. at Signal Mountain Middle High School to speak to the Mountain Education Foundation, which may represent the best possible option to help public education moving forward.

"Education is so important," Walker said recently on Press Row on ESPN 105.1 FM. "Anytime you can help a kid and give him self-worth and help him overcome problems in his life, whether it's bullying or obesity."

The MEF — and you can find out more about the group and Walker's visit by visiting meftoday.org — is a nonprofit group that works with the four public schools on Signal Mountain. There are a few similar organizations in Hamilton County — there's one that helps support Normal Park and the D-9 group in the eastern part of the county. District 5 has looked into starting a group, as well.

And there's never been a bigger need.

City and county school budgets around the country are aren't keeping up with enrollment and requirements for ever-more-sophisticated teaching and technology.

"Our partnership with MEF is invaluable as it allows us to provide so many things that we would not otherwise be able to do in relying solely on public funding," said Dr. Shane Harwood, principal at Nolan Elementary. "Through the efforts of MEF, all of our students are able to have high-quality art and computer instruction each week, which is not provided as a basic offering in our public schools."

These groups fill the gaps for their school communities. They are a huge step for the future, and if your area has one I encourage you to find a way to help. If your area doesn't, try to figure out how you can help get one going.

The MEF was started in the early 1990s and has become a savior for Harwood and his colleagues on Signal.

"We fund 11 staff positions between the four schools, including computer, art education, learning center coordinator and college access counselor," MEF Executive Director Katie Hanners said. "We provide significant funding for professional development and technology improvements.

"We have helped to fund facility upgrades, i.e., theater lighting at SMMHS, and we provide classroom materials. The schools submit a budget with funding priorities to MEF each spring for the next funding year."

For a while these groups were commonplace for most schools, whether they were called booster clubs or alumni associations or PTAs or anything else. Those groups became hyperfocused on specific sports or activities and the splintering in a lot of ways caused decay.

The public high school used to be the linchpin of each community, be it Friday nights in the fall or school plays or what have you, the support from those communities flowed.

Now that support does not come as organically as it once did.

It has to be generated, and that takes effort.

And organization.

"Although I certainly think that in a perfect world all schools would benefit from having MEF-like support, I think that can only become a reality when we collectively move educating our students to the forefront of all we do," Harwood said.

"The charge of MEF, as a school support organization, is deeply rooted in the belief that educating our students is one of the most important responsibilities that we as a society have and it works because the stakeholders really see that and get behind it.

"When parents and organizations such as MEF provide such concentrated and ongoing support for education, fantastic things can happen for students and their learning."

It's a message Walker echoed with the speed of one of his long touchdown runs.

"I want to thank the foundation for all that they do to support the kids," Walker said. "(Come to the event), buy a table to help fund the foundation, not to hear Herschel Walker."

Talk about the best of both worlds.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com and 423-757-6343. His "Right to the Point" column appears on A2 Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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