This community doesn't say thank you often enough to Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke for his dedication to children, especially in the arena of early childhood education.
Every year, he invests city money — and convinces the City Council to back him — in an effort for which Chattanooga doesn't have to take responsibility. Our schools are county schools, funded by Hamilton County government and run by an elected county school board.
But our county schools are underfunded, and the county's leadership has, with a few exceptions, basically thumbed it nose at early childhood education. It is an unfortunate and short-sighted failing, reflected in the sad fact that only about 34 percent of our third-graders can read at grade level. A big "why" is that they are not school-ready when they come to kindergarten and first-grade.
We learn to read, and read to learn, so it should be of little surprise that data shows that this handicap tends to follow our children throughout their lives: Only 38 percent of our high school graduates are seen as jobs-ready in the eyes of local employers. Our students' learning, or lack of it, affects the city's crime rate, economic growth, wages and financial stability.
In other words, our youngsters' education has a direct impact on the quality of life in our entire community.
That's the dollars-and-sense reason Berke in 2016 decided Chattanooga would make an ongoing investment in early childhood learning. In 2017, he announced the city's first-ever director of the Chattanooga's Office of Early Learning.
At the same time, the city boosted its investment in early childhood development, providing more than $1.5 million in additional support for improved childcare programs for working families and for the city's Baby University, launched in 2015 to help families understand how to meet their infants' and toddlers' developmental benchmarks. After all, 80 percent of a child's brain development happens during the first three years of life.
If you watched Mayor Berke's State of the City address Thursday, you know he's still at it — constantly tinkering with those kid-focused city programs, as well city infrastructure, safety and development issues. (You can still watch the address online at chattanooga.gov).
Over the past year the city has created 365 new seats in early learning classes and obtained pledges for 600 more. On Thursday he told his audience that city government also is leading the way with a "top-notch" coordinated curriculum from providers like Chambliss Center for Children, Siskin Children's Institute and Signal Centers.
Similarly he is adding safety support for public schools in the city.
"Starting now, the Chattanooga Police Department will ensure that every school in our city without an SRO — and each early learning center — has a specific police liaison with direct ownership for that school's safety and security. It is not enough to say, well, that's someone else's job. Parents don't give up their responsibility when their kids walk out the door of their home, and this city isn't going to pass off our obligation to our children simply because they are walking in the door of a Hamilton County school."
He also announced a new police/school partnership he calls "Handle with Care."
"We know that a child packs not just a bookbag to school, but also their problems from home," Berke said. "That's one reason a teacher's job is so difficult. But what if our teachers knew more about what that child is bringing to school? Could they do more? I think so. ... When our police are called to a child's house, we will let administrators at the school know, reporting specialized information so that teachers and administrators can understand — and help."
Berke believes that investing in children is essential to a city of creators, which is how he views Chattanooga.
To that end, he's introduced a host of kid-focused programs: a reading and literacy initiative, substantial improvements in recreation centers and the city's Department of Youth and Family Development, a free summer camp for any Chattanooga child, a library card distributed to every Hamilton County student.
Let us say it again:
This community doesn't say thank you often enough to Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke for his dedication to children.
He knows our children are Chattanooga's future.