published Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

Cook: The underdog classroom

A week or so ago, near the bare trees and bus stop shadows, a dirty white minivan sat idling near the curb outside Eastgate Town Center, a "Believer" bumper sticker pasted across the back window.

Its sliding door opened.

And out they came.

Dropouts. Single moms. The jobless. Gangbangers.

The least of these. Maybe the worst of these.

But at that moment, stepping out of the van and into the sunshine, they were something else.

Students.

"I'm trying to overcome the obstacles of my life," said Kenyasha Leverett.

Since November, Leverett has done something she hasn't done in years: attend school. Day in, day out. Studying and chasing after one thing: a GED.

That afternoon at Eastgate, Leverett and 11 others would sit two and three to a table, gripping tight their No. 2 pencils as they took a four-hour, multiple choice GED assessment test at the Chattanooga State Adult Education program.

Just a practice. To see if they're ready for the real thing.

"This test is going to tell us where we're at," said Leverett. "Our weak spots."

Yes, weak spots. There may be too many to count. The sad grind of poverty. The ghosts of bad decisions. A landscape where good things can be mirages.

Which is why, four days a week, these ragamuffin students have sat for hours in a small room in a Brainerd Road strip center. Using colored markers and a wipe board, volunteers reintroduce the basics: Grammar. Spelling. Essays. Punctuation.

They subtracted fractions. Studied types of triangles. The circumference of circles. Gang members, talking about the Pythagorean theorem, writing practice essays to people they love.

Like the first in a line of thin dominoes, a GED, they believe, will lead to a job, which will led to an honest paycheck. Less violence. Fewer hours on the streets. Some steady ground.

"I'm trying to do this so I can go to school and get a better job," said Brandon Dupree, 25.

So they've put their faith in education. Really, they've put their faith in the one man who got them here.

Skip Eberhardt.

"He's straight," said Ashley Harris. "He's good."

In his day, Eberhardt, 62, was as bad as anybody in Chattanooga. But the years went by, and Eberhardt realized he had to make amends. So he's back on the streets, trying to save kids like an underground, unorthodox, straight-talking, cigarette-smoking director of his own gang task force.

Some days, he's got pennies to his name. A gas tank that stays empty. For weeks, the transmission in his white minivan wouldn't run in reverse.

Only forward. Ever forward.

Barbershops. Housing projects. Front porches. Took calls in the middle of the night. His number is plugged into the contact list of who-knows-how-many gang members in this town.

"I get six calls a week," Eberhardt said. "They're crying for help."

Which is why he started the Saving Kids, Instilling Pride, or SKIP, program. It's an underdog classroom, made of volunteers and cheap pizza for lunch and spiral notebooks and hard work.

Students from UTC, retired teachers, busy professionals all have come to help. Both the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga and the McKenzie Foundation have donated time and money. Chattanooga State is helping, too.

"It's working," said Pete Cooper, president of the Community Foundation, which accepts charitable donations to Eberhardt's programs.

One student wept in class, so moved by the work. I've seen Skip cuss them for slacking off. They miss more than four days, he kicks them out.

"He wants to see people do better than he did," said Harris.

They bum smokes from him. He lets them use his cell when they're out of minutes. Picks them up. Takes them home again.

And, on the day they take their practice GED test, he waits outside the Chattanooga State testing center like an expectant father.

Later that day, he sent a text.

"Everybody passed," he said.

And Eberhardt, in the van that only goes forward, loaded up his students and took them out for hamburgers. To celebrate, and think about the real test that comes later this month.

Forward. Only forward. Don't ever go back.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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