published Thursday, November 1st, 2012

Hamilton County Coalition hopes to reach Chattanooga kids at early age

  • photo
    Sheryl Randolph, Hamilton County School's director of student services.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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TO GET INVOLVED

Contact Hugh Reece at the Hamilton County Coalition at hreece@comcast.net, or Valerie Radu of Grove Street Settlement House at valerie.radu@gmail.com.

The problems are many, but a small group of advocates hopes to help children on the verge of falling through the cracks as gang membership continues to rise in Chattanooga.

The group includes about a dozen people from various fields, including a nurse from the Scholze Center for Adolescent Treatment, a city councilwoman, a couple of staff members from the social work program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, a Hamilton County Jail employee and caseworker at Child Protective Services. They met Wednesday at Carver Recreation Center on North Orchard Knob Avenue to discuss their plans.

They hope to start with a small group of students at an East Chattanooga middle or elementary school to reach some who have missed 20 to 25 days of school. At 30 absences, Hamilton County Schools must notify the state Department of Children and Family Services.

The members hope to reach younger children, and work not only children but their entire family by removing barriers to attending school. They will use a program that group member Valerie Radu developed as an assistant professor at UTC to target nontraditional college students.

The program will be run through Grove Street Settlement House, which is independent of the university and was co-founded by Radu.

Many families need access to basic services, said Ricardo Jones, director of the Carver Recreation Center.

"I'll help in anyway you want me to," he told the small group on Wednesday.

The group is separate from the city's gang task force, which is implementing a gang assessment commissioned earlier this year.

"We are trying to put something together using services that are already in place," said Hugh Reece. He is community outreach coordinator for the Hamilton County Coalition, which works to reduce drug abuse, underage drinking and violence.

The program being put together by the group won't cost extra, he said.

The group hopes to work with teachers in the trenches to find the students who are on the verge of making poor choices, including dropping out of school or joining gangs.

"These are the ones you can capture," said Sheryl Randolph, director of student services for Hamilton County Board of Education.

An average of more than 10,000 students are truant every year, records show, and studies show truancy can lead to gang membership.

The school district struggles to get truant students to school, Randolph said. There was a short-lived program that paid taxi fare for students, but it proved to be too expensive and a potential liability for the district.

Randolph said she has spoken countless times with parents of truant students, asking them to make sure their children show up at school. Sometimes the parents respond with, "'You want them up? You come get them up. We don't have an alarm clock,'" she said. "We're out buying alarm clocks."

To get students to school, the district hands out public bus passes and offers day care at selected schools for students with children.

"This is not something we can do independently without getting everyone on board," said Chattanooga City Councilwoman Deborah Scott, who kept the meeting moving and set goals for the group.

By the next meeting, group members said, they want parents of students from the eastern side of the city to attend and also to begin talks with school principals about a pilot program.

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