published Saturday, October 19th, 2013

Day 1 of a brighter future: Chattanooga program aims to help teens learn to lead, succeed

By Meghan Pittman

There will be no excuses.

City leaders will give 50 Chattanooga teens every opportunity to succeed, every helping hand and every chance to make good choices. Up to now some of these teens, from the city’s tougher neighborhoods, are more used to broken promises and adults who swoop in and out of their lives.

But those days are over, say those overseeing the Chattanooga Ambassador Program, or CAP, which will provide intense mentoring, tutoring, leadership development and job training for 25 boys and 25 girls in Chattanooga high schools.

“They don’t get to fly under the radar anymore,” said Gary Rudolph, a Chattanooga Parks and Recreation official spearheading the CAP program. “They can’t slip through the cracks. We want them to be leaders. We want them to be visible in the community.”

The group of boys, ages 16 to 18, will kick off the program today with a signing ceremony, similar to the scholarship signing ceremonies high schools hold for future college athletes.

“It’s just to say we’re making a commitment and we’re offering you a brighter future,” said Lurone Jennings, the city’s director of youth and family development. “Then we’re expecting these young people to turn around and change the youth culture, to help other people and take the lead. Because we’ll never have enough staff to entirely change the culture.”

The girls CAP program will kick off in January. The two efforts are part of Mayor Andy Berke’s strategy to get the city more involved in educational programs. His administration is also helping fund a new early childhood development center and has reshaped the offerings at recreation centers.

CAP participant De Juan Scott has noticed. The rec center is no longer just about basketball. There are more adults around.

And Scott, 16, said he’s hopeful that the new CAP program will help teens like him learn to trust adults. He’s seen adults and promises come and go.

“We drink, and smoke, but we’re coping with the anger and the loss” from absent or unreliable parents and authority figures, said Scott, a sophomore at Tyner Academy. “We just want someone to be there to say, ‘I love you. I am here for you, I want to see you succeed.’”

Scott, who hopes to go to Morehouse College, knows he’ll benefit from the program’s support. But he’s also looking forward to working with other kids, who he says need a positive influence.

“You just see it so much, where people have missing pieces of their lives, like their fathers. Girls … they find love somewhere else and guys turn to gangs,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to keep the next generation from following us and falling into this.”

CAP participants will be given an array of supports. There will be tutoring and mentoring services. They’ll work in the city’s youth and family development centers, where they will earn a monthly stipend to learn the value of work and reward. They’ll learn workplace habits and mentor youngsters.

The Berke administration pushed expanded funding for youth development programs in its first budget. The work-experience part of the CAP program is budgeted to cost about $288,000.

“We want to keep them close,” Rudolph said. “We want to know where they are, know what they’re doing.”

To that end, each child will have eight to 10 adults — school leaders, city employees, tutors, case workers and faith leaders — keeping constant track of their work, school and home lives.

“They’re going to know what the participant is supposed to be doing,” Rudolph said. “They’re going to call them. They’re going to talk to them. They’re going to go to their ball games. They’re going to be engaged with the parents, with the family.”

Centers, churches and schools suggested students who could benefit from the 48-week program.

The adults in the program will be just a phone call away, to offer help with everything from sticky social situations to homework. The kids will learn how city government functions. And they’ll explore businesses like Volkswagen of Chattanooga and the Amazon Fulfillment Center in hopes of getting them ready for college and careers.

But most of all, officials say the adults are in it for the long haul. Their circle will surround the students and they won’t disappear.

“I’m counting on that human investment to make the difference,” Rudolph said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

Contact staff writer Meghan Pittman at mpittman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6506.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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