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SDMS teams up with Leadership Chattanooga for mentorship program

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Leadership Chattanooga initiates Traci Day, left, and Amanda Merideth smile for a picture.

Thirty Soddy-Daisy Middle School students are already looking into possible college and career paths. Sounds a little early to be considering such options, right?

Not if you ask SDMS principal Blake Freeman, who would refer to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 campaign. The goal of the campaign is to bring the percentage of Tennesseans with college degrees to 55 percent by 2025, according to driveto55.org.

“High school, I believe, is too late to start talking to students about their career,” Freeman said. “We want to make sure that we as a school are doing our share of securing the future of our community and our county.”

Fortunately for him and his students, a group of eight Leadership Chattanooga initiates — Justin Furrow, Ryan Rogers, Tish Calitz, Traci Day, Amanda Meredith, Mark Jones, Michael Hutcherson and Rose Martin — were looking for a project to pour their professional talents into this year.

When Freeman proposed starting a college and career mentorship program, Furrow, a local attorney with Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel P.C., said he and the rest of the group thought it would be a perfect fit.

“Part of the need we identified is earlier awareness of college and career choices,” said Furrow, who is a Soddy native and SDMS alum. “We wanted, even from the sixth grade, to create awareness.”

The group fleshed out Freeman’s concept, calling it Focus on the Future. Two group members teach an hour-long session every other week to the 30 middle school students, who were hand-picked by their teachers for the program.

At each session, the professionals teach on a variety of topics and industries. There are lessons on salary, levels of education and even job interviewing skills.

“Every time [students] walk out of the class they have smiles on their faces,” said Freeman. “It’s just had a great effect all around. It’s really gone far beyond what I envisioned.”

The students were also able to tour sites like UTC and businesses like Woople, the Chattanooga Times Free Press and the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.

The program will culminate in a College and Career Fair at the middle school April 23, allowing the entire SDMS student body to explore possible schools and careers.

“We’re opening doors and shining lights on things they never believed they could do,” said Furrow. “For me, it’s an opportunity to give back to my school. Our group is providing inspiration and tools to the next generation.”

Freeman said the goal is to make the Focus on the Future program sustainable so that it can continue in coming years.