Being the Agent of Change

By Brad McEwen

I’ve never been shy about my stance that the number one issue facing our community, and our nation, is not jobs, or healthcare or defense. For me, it’s all about education.

As Malcolm X once said, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” And I couldn’t agree more.

In my opinion, our educational opportunities and standards should be our top priority if we are really to have any hope of creating a future where those other important issues are properly addressed.

So needless to say, I was thrilled the other day when I had a chance to spend some time with local resident and engineering consultant Chandu Kuntawala, who not only shares my views on the importance of education, but whose passion for learning has inspired him to take on the challenge of trying to improve the quality of and access to education in our community.

“The thrust, from my perspective, is that if you live in a community and there’s aspects of the community that you feel could be better, then be the agent of change, be involved,” Chandu told me. “From the beginning I was always interested in supporting education and kids, you know. The passion that I have for education is because it is the foundation for everything else.

“What do I mean by that? If you look at any time in history, we seem to be very focused always on everything except education,” he continued. “I purposefully watch some of the debates that we have, especially during presidential runs, just to get a sense. You had, I think 16 candidates (in the last election), in one party, and you think they’re there because they have a lot of experience, expertise, knowledge, and they’re smart people. They go around and talk about tax reforms, health care reforms, social security, how they’re going to fix Medicare.

“Nobody seems to lean on the fact that, ‘Wait a minute, that’s short term,’” he continued. “The long-term, actually solving those issues, we’ve got to have the foundation, which is an educational foundation.”

It’s not surprising that someone with a passion for engineering would focus on the need for a strong foundation, so it makes sense that Chandu is proud that he’s not simply been able to get involved in two important educational initiatives in our community, but that he’s been given an opportunity to help shape the long-term direction of both the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce’s Educational Committee and the newly established Commodore Conyers College and Career Academy, or 4C Academy for short.

“The only way I see education turning in the right direction is making education the number one priority in our nation,” Chandu said. “Unless it’s a national priority, unless we value education more than anything else—and if we do the foundation, and that foundation becomes solid and firm and deep—all these other elements of our society that we want changed will happen on their own. The wherewithal for that will come from these kids in the next generations.

“So that’s really my core area that I’ve been passionate about—supporting education. And the two main areas that I’m involved with that sort of relate to education are, I’m the chair of the Chamber of Commerce’s education division—which means that I’m the chair for the education committee that they have and this year I’m the chairman of the board of the YMCA as well, which connects back—and then, of course, through the Chamber’s educational division, I’m also the chairman for the 4CA.”

As chair of the boards that help guide those educational organizations, Chandu has been able to help oversee some pretty important steps being made to strengthen educational opportunities throughout the community.

In the case of the YMCA, which he pointed out is the number one provider of child care in the state of Georgia, Chandu’s involved with a number of different programs that factored into the Y recently being named this year’s “Nonprofit of the Year” by the Albany Chamber.

“I mean the YMCA, on a totality basis, it’s about the community and the community focus is the kids,” Chandu said. “Even though everybody immediately perceives the Y as a gym or a basketball court, it’s about youth education and the support we provide to the kids is huge.”

As important as the work Chandu is doing with the YMCA board is, many of the things the organization is doing to support area youth have been in place for some time. The same can’t be said, however, for two of the programs the Chamber’s educational committee has recently launched, both of which are aimed at getting Chamber members better connected with local schools to serve as a valued resource.

“On the educational committee side for the Chamber, the focus I had was that it had to be a mission of what purpose and value can we bring to the Chamber and the community members and how can we engage them that directly affects the kids?” Chandu explained. “ And again, it’s not, ‘Hey, well, let’s go around and ask for $100 checks to pay for field day or a field trip somewhere or whatever.’”

To that end, the committee started the “Go See” program, which is designed to get educational committee members, and ultimately the Chamber membership as a whole, into the schools (public and private) so they can get an up-close view of what’s going on in area classrooms.

“The ‘Go See’ program is specifically to share what’s going on at our schools with our committee members,” Chandu said. “It’s open to everybody. For the folks who come and tour and visit the schools, the goal is to learn three to five great things happening in each school and for them to see firsthand those great things. Then, they become the conduit in the community.

“You know every community needs positive messaging, to share all the great things that are happening with us, in our community. So my intent with ‘Go See’ is to purposefully go see the school in the natural setting. It’s not a program, school tour, visit where they have to put on a show. We want to talk to the kids, so we sometimes integrate the schedule where we actually have lunch with the kids.

“We also want the kids, the children in the school, to feel great that the community members care enough to come and hang out with them and be a part of that relationship.”

In the short time since the committee started the ‘Go See’ program, Chandu said members have been to several schools and he believes it’s been an eye-opening experience to see some of the impressive things going on.

One example he gave was the group’s visit to Monroe Comprehensive High School, which has been undergoing significant changes in recent years.

“An early story with ‘Go See,’ we went see Monroe high school,” Chandu explained. “Mr. (Vinson) Davis is a very strong principal and a great educator in our community, in my opinion, and again, we wanted to see three or five great things. I’ll tell you that the list went on and on. I mean, they went from the bottom of the pool in high schools to the top.

“And I think that kind of messaging doesn’t go out to the community at large, in my opinion. I don’t think they get to see that. So this was a great opportunity for us to share that.”

While it’s certainly important for the education committee members to see the community’s schools and share that with the public, perhaps the most important thing Chandu has been working on is the second program the education committee has developed, which is called ‘Priority One.’

Chandu said ‘Priority One’ builds on ‘Go See’ by having committee members, and ultimately the Chamber membership at large, become volunteers and mentors at area schools.

“It’s amazing what we hear and find out at all the different schools,” Chandu said. “As part of the total involvement, though, each committee member signs up to be a volunteer and mentor. We have a listing of all the schools and the committee members can decide which school they want to support and in which month they want to volunteer.”

Chandu explained that the committee members work directly with the schools to provide whatever support they can, and that the Chamber involvement has been very well received by school leadership.

“There’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm; they’re eager to have us there,” he said. “The volunteer mentor program, and all the areas that we highlight, are based on going to the school and doing research with the schools about what their needs and expectations are.

“Again, it was leading them to get involved on the front end, so they have a vested interest saying, ‘Here are the areas that we want help with or where we have a need for volunteers and mentors.’”

Of course for either of the programs to be effective, Chandu said it takes commitment from the education committee as whole, something he sees happening thanks to increasing participation.

“Today (the education committee) has become the largest committee that the Chamber has ever had,” he said. “We have 36 members. And I mean they’re all engaged, because my commitment was, ‘Don’t just put your name on the list. If you can’t be involved, if you don’t want to be involved, don’t do it.’”

Chandu also said that because of the commitment of the members who joined the committee, the group was able to build a solid program, which he believes will be successful because it was the committee members that designed it.

“We actually had a discovery capture session with the committee members on what their thoughts and ideas were,” he said. “We threw everything at the board and then we started to put them in groups and drill it down and these two programs came out of that. These are actually the ideas and notions of the committee members themselves. Then we started to put in all the details. We made sure that we’ve actually got documentation and clear plans and goals developed.”

With the structure now in place, Chandu said the next step is to get the larger Chamber population involved.

“Our next thrust, this year, is to open these programs to the Chamber membership at large,” he said. “I’m an engineer in my background, so I’m thinking, ‘Okay, if the 30-plus committee members bring so much attention to these two programs, can you imagine what the entire Chamber membership could do?’”

Even with all the responsibility and work that comes with chairing the Chamber education committee and working to help get ‘Go See’ and ‘Priority One’ up and running, Chandu is still able to devote time to his other major educational focus, the 4C Academy, which is currently wrapping up its first year in operation.

Much has been made about the potential impact of the 4CA—which is essentially a joint partnership between the state, the Dougherty County School System, the community’s post-secondary institutions and the business community to provide both high school and post-secondary educational opportunities to students in Dougherty and Calhoun counties—and Chandu thinks all the accolades are more than appropriate.

From the start, Chandu said, the 4CA has been a success, thanks mainly to the huge commitment the various partners who support the facility have made.

Chandu highlighted the significant investment made by the school system to leverage an initial $3.3 million state grant with additional estimated capital investments of $10 million and $15 million, as being one of the major reasons for the school’s early success.

“We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had some incredible support from the Dougherty County School System through both superintendents, Dr. Mosely and Mr. Dyer, on many fronts,” he said. “When you just look at the investment they’ve been willing to make to ensure that our school had the foundation and the opportunity to be what I would call a first-class college and career academy, that’s very unique in my opinion.”

That investment—which has been bolstered by the partnerships the school has with Albany Technical College and Albany State University to provide dual enrollment possibilities for students—has already led to tremendous success.

“The dual enrollment program is an early success; that was a quick win,” said Chandu. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but last year in the Dougherty County School System, in the 9th grade, there were nine students in dual enrollment. When the college and career academy started there were 90. Today, I think it’s above, or close to 200 students.”

And it’s that kind of success that really gets Chandu excited about what the 4CA can achieve.

“From my perspective, the expectations are that if we help one child in our community that did not dream of, did not have any anticipation or goal of going anywhere beyond high school, end up getting some kind of higher education degree or status—meaning that they might get two years of college credits but not a degree—we’ve been successful,” he said. “If we do that with one child, the potential then is limitless in my opinion.”

Just as important as the potential of providing students with post-secondary educational opportunities, Chandu said, is the fact that the students at 4CA are also getting a practical education, geared toward getting the students job-ready while meeting the needs of area industry.

From the beginning, the 4CA has partnered with area business and industry to make sure the curriculum being offered helps prepare students for the workforce.

“We wanted to clearly understand the goals and expectations of industry before we laid pen to paper,” Chandu said of the planning process. “We actually had the same thing, a discovery capture session, with business and industry for a whole day at the Albany Convention and Visitors Bureau. We had the P&Gs, the MillerCoors, the Phoebes, the Marine Corps, SASCO, and others just to brainstorm.”

With the help of a consulting firm, that ran the session, the 4CA leadership was able to develop the 14 pathways now offered to students who attend the school, all of which are designed to meet future workforce needs.

“That’s actually a product of that session,” Chandu said. “And that’s what the academic folks used to build a curriculum. That’s what the architects used to design the final building. To me, that notion was very important because you can build the greatest gadgets in the world, but if the demand is for widgets, you can gold plate them and they’re two for one, you’re still not going to move them.

“We want to get the kids involved on the right pathway because the potential lies that a 9th-grader starting at the 4CA stays there for the next three or four years in dual enrollment, has the potential of having a high school diploma and an associate degree, or two years of college credit, at no cost.

“That’s huge. I frame that as a game-changer. It’s a game-changer for the kids, education itself, economic development, workforce management. You know it’s huge in a lot of aspects.”

As I listened to the excitement and conviction in Chandu’s voice as he explained the potential impact of both the Chamber education initiatives and the 4CA academy, I couldn’t help but think back to his initial remarks about the overall importance of education and how he believes it’s the key to a better future.

I also thought about what Chandu told me of his personal background as a native of India who grew up in Zambia and ultimately found his own path in life thanks to the importance his family always placed on education.

Through his upbringing, his schooling in England, and ultimately his arrival in the United States to attend college at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, education has always been something of value in his life. And it’s something he’d like to see valued across his adopted country.

“You know, I’ve framed it, and I’ve said this just recently to somebody, I think part of it is because the opportunity I got being raised in Zambia and the opportunity to go to school in England,” Chandu said of the importance of education in his life. “It was a completely different foundation than what I saw here. The standards, the commitment, it comes from, I go back to the earliest thing, it comes from parenting. There was just a lot of focus on education.

“To give you an example of the standards, when I was in Zambia it was a third-world country. Oh sure it was a British Colony at one time, but then it became independent. But we went to school six days a week. In boarding school in England, we went six days a week. And it was not only the educational standards, but also the standards of how you came to school. Whether it was Zambia or England, I had a complete uniform.

“It was known you had to go to school. Everybody.”

Much to Chandu’s frustration, however, he sees that education in the United States—aside from the post-secondary educational system which he believes is the best in the world—is just not prioritized and that students, as a result, are not being challenged the way they should be.

“It doesn’t make sense that we’re not continually challenging to raise the standards to meet the world goals,” he said. “There’s a disconnect about the standards of learning and the standards of passing.

“Unfortunately I think our society has changed so much that that becomes the big elephant.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen this, I think I have it somewhere, Fortune put out a complete issue titled Saving Our Schools. The whole issue was about the challenge of schools K through 12 in our country. The statistics are alarming in that magazine. I mean on one page, I still remember, I quoted this… Nestle has an ad that has a chalkboard. It’s a green board, and it’s got the number 700,000 written in white chalk. At the bottom, in very fine print, it says, ‘These are the number of reasons why Nestle is committed to education in the United States,’ with a footnote saying, ‘By the way, these are also the numbers of kids that graduate from high school in the United States that cannot read our ad.’

“So, you know, it all goes back to the standard. How can you have a high school diploma in your hand and not be able to read at the level you’re supposed to?”

Even though our society still has a long way to go, thanks to the dedication and hard work of people like Chandu Kuntawala, who is willing to give his time and effort to important initiatives like the Chamber education committee and the 4C Academy, I have to believe our community is heading in the right direction in regard to improving education.

As the son of an educator and the husband of teacher who was raised by a family of teachers, I can’t help but get excited when I meet people like Chandu and see some of the awesome things he’s involved with. From where I sit, I think Albany and all of Southwest Georgia have a bright future.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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