Education

These students wanted 30 minutes of Columbus mayor’s time. He showed up and listened.

Last month, when Marie Hand was the substitute teacher in his Spanish class, Shaw High School junior Chance Price and other students talked about issues affecting youth in the city.

Price, 16, wondered aloud whether he could have “30 minutes of undivided attention” with the mayor. Tuesday, he and 14 other Shaw students selected by their teachers got a lot more than that.

Hand gave Price the email address of Columbus Council citywide representative John House, who helped Price arrange a lunch and question and answer session with Mayor Skip Henderson and the councilor.

Before the mayor’s visit, Price told the Ledger-Enquirer, “I’m anxious, a little nervous, but overall, for him to come here and speak with us, I’m very grateful.”

After the mayor’s visit, Price said the Q&A went as well as he had hoped.

“He listened to us,” Price said. “It felt like he really appreciated our values, our statements and everything like that. I couldn’t feel happier. … We possibly could have made an impact on him and his view of what’s going on. Hearing (a) view from a younger perspective could really change somebody’s actions. So this could change his actions and could change us.”

Shaw principal Sureya Hendrick said the event is part of the school’s new approach to student engagement. Starting this year, student representatives are on the staff’s major committees.

“It’s very empowering for them, and it helps us,” Hendrick said. “… You’re able to see what they’re thinking, how they’re thinking. … When we go to make decisions that affect not only them but the Shaw family, we keep that in mind, what they’re telling us.”

Henderson encouraged the students to stay involved in civic issues, participate in organizations such as the Columbus Youth Advisory Council and contact their government representatives.

The focus of his administration, the mayor said, is to build a city not for the citizens who are adults now but for future adults.

“If you don’t tell us how you want to do it,” he told the students, “we’ll screw it up.”

Here are highlights from the students’ questions and the mayor’s answers:

What precautions are you taking when it comes to protecting teenagers from sex trafficking?

Henderson: “We work with state agencies. Our police department uses intelligence-based policing. We rely more on technology than ever have, monitoring websites, monitoring Facebook sites. … It’s become a real issue in Georgia and a problem in the country.”

How is Columbus helping to combat deforestation and preserve our ecosystem?

Henderson: “Columbus has really gotten, over the last 10-15 years, very conscious of our urban canopy.”

The nonprofit organization Trees Columbus is inventorying every tree in the Lakebottom area, Henderson said.

“If we can work with them, we’ll be able to make an inventory of the entire community,” he said.

The city has strict regulations about requiring a certain amount of “tree density units” for each construction project, the mayor said.

“We’re not doing as good a job as we need to right now,” he said. “… Trees are aging out. … But with a little bit of maintenance and a replanting program, instead of the graph trending down, it stays flat.”

Other parts of the city have problems with the roots of trees on the right-of-way tearing up driveways and plumbing, he said, as well as limbs falling on cars.

How are you going to make sure people coming into Columbus see beautiful places, not just downtown but everywhere?

Henderson: “That’s a challenge. One of the biggest challenges we face is blight, properties that have been abandoned and just sitting in somebody’s neighborhood, and they become crime magnets. … I give Council credit. They left us money in the budget, we put a million dollars in the budget to tear down some of these blighted properties. When I first got into office (January 2019), in my estimation, it was the single thing we could do that would impact the broadest number of people.”

What do you hope to accomplish before the end of your term?

Henderson: “Man, the longer I’ve been here, the longer the list gets. (Laughs.) … We’re going to get the Liberty District started. That is a huge piece of the history of this community. James Brown used to perform here. It was because they did not allow African Americans to go into other parts of the community, so they went to the Liberty. And that theater was world renowned. We’ve got a chance to reclaim that, rebuild that area and turn into a real vital piece. … We also want to make sure we continue to move the needle on poverty. It’s ridiculous. I can’t do this as a government official, but I can engage people in the community, get them on board and involved in a movement. It’s everybody looking at how they can help others.”

How are you planning to promote the things that we do have and build upon it?

The mayor asked the students for the best way to get information to them. They said social media, specifically Instagram.

Henderson: “We’ve started trying to put them in short videos, like 45 seconds, 50 seconds. We’ve started a YouTube channel that’s connected to our Facebook page. It’s connected to our website. I think we may already have connected to Instagram.”

One of his assistants, Becca Covington, confirmed the city’s presence on Instagram.

What can we do to give kids more activities?

Henderson mentioned the Passport to Columbus program, which gave youth free passes to activities and bus transportation throughout the city during the summer.

Next year, he said, the goal is to distribute the passes through the schools.

“This next summer, we’re going to bring back the Summer Youth Work Program,” he said. “We’re going to create jobs for young people. We’ll probably start with 30-40 kids we’ll pilot the program with.”

The program will include jobs with salaries above minimum wage in which participants also learn “life skills, soft skills,” Henderson said.

“I would charge y’all with this: If you think of things that might be good ideas to pursue, don’t keep it to yourself,” he said. “Let us know.”

One student suggested having other city officials to visit other high schools for their input.

“That’s such a good idea,” Henderson said.

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.
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