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Education for Change

0103 - Education for Change

Around 1972, Clark Howard (W’73) started a volunteer tutoring program for kids who didn’t have the same advantages as Westminster students. The program grew beyond Westminster and continued for years. The program benefited the kids and the tutors alike.

In the summer of 2021, Adam Messer (W’74) sent Michael Slade (W’73) a film documentary made by Adam as a Westminster student. Michael took the digitized Super 8 movie and audio cassette narration track and combined them into a video. This 7 minute documentary tells the story of Atlanta Volunteer Action, a tutoring program started by Clark Howard (W’73) while a student at Westminster around 1972. Clark used the film Adam made to raise funds and to persuade other schools to participate.

In October of 2021, Adam arranged a Zoom call with Adam, Clark, Michael, and Suzy Goldberg (W’72). Clark filled us in on the program’s history and his lifelong interest in education as an agent for change in people’s lives.

Michael: It's quite amazing to see an almost 50 year old film and how it dates us in a time and place. There are few shots of you [Clark] in the film. There are some shots of you and the van and toward the end at the graduation ceremony. We want to find out how you started that program. Do you have any idea if it continued after you left? I do remember you being involved in a lot of community activities.

Clark: I'm trying to remember, I guess I was a sophomore when we had a small group called the Vinings Club, which is history that people in Atlanta have no idea about. Vinings had an extremely impoverished area of black residents who were right in the midst of what now is one of the most affluent parts of Atlanta. They had no electricity, no normal heat, no bathrooms. They lived in shacks right across from where there was a thing called Vinings Mountain which I think opened before we finished high school. There was an artificial ski mountain that opened in Vinings that was almost like packing material. The white packing stuff was put on this hillside and people could go learn to ski on it. And that was right across this very road from where these black families lived.

These kids lived in such deep poverty. There'd been a program at Westminster for years to help these kids and help their families. I got involved in that. Then I felt like I wanted to do something bigger as I got to know what was going on with these kids. I had been a volunteer with what was then the Boys Clubs. It's now the Boys and Girls Clubs. And I really saw the educational deficiencies in these kids. And so it was a pretty simple clean sheet kind of idea. What if we got kids in Westminster's high school to tutor these kids that are going to have such a hard time in life because their academic achievement was already pitiful in elementary school?

I had contacts with the Boys Club and they had transportation. They knew the people at the elementary schools. And we started with one Boys Club, one elementary school called CW Hill Elementary School, which was in the Bedford Pine neighborhood at what's next to North Avenue. It was right where that school was. And there was a very, very poor neighborhood there that if you went back now, it's all gentrified. And so, we started with a small group of kids and a small group of volunteers. We started with 43 volunteers and the Boys Club two days a week would drive kids when they got out of elementary school to Westminster, we'd serve them a snack first in the cafeteria, and then they'd be tutored for an hour. And then they had a half hour of playtime where they go on the basketball court or something like that. You probably saw that in the video.

Photo of Clark Howard
Clark Howard

It exposed the Westminster students who lived in a hermetically sealed rich white kid kind of world, to people who were completely different than they were, and it exposed these kids to possibilities. In addition to the opportunity for academic achievement, I think it was really so influential in both directions. I think the volunteers got a lot out of it and so did the kids. That was my junior year. And then during my junior year, I went around and talked at various high schools and was able to start chapters at Lovett, Pace Academy, Woodward, Douglas High School, and North Springs High School. And so we're able to start these at different schools. And we paired each school with a different Boys Club that paired with different elementary schools.

By the end of that, of my junior year, we had 150 some odd volunteers at Westminster. We had started the Lovett program in the spring. By that fall of our senior year, we opened them up at the different high schools. I got an organization called Literacy Action, which taught non reading adults how to read, to train the high school students in basic tutoring in English and math. They provided the materials for us. I just went and told the story and people kept helping. We would do the recruiting in the fall, get the volunteers trained, and the kids started about four weeks into the school year and we'd do it through the fall and the spring.

Suzy: Clark, did it continue after you left?

Clark: Oh yeah. For years and years. What changed was there was a teacher at Pace Academy who just loved this, and she basically took over the program and ran it around Metro Atlanta for years and years. More schools were added and it went on for a long time. Must have been another 15 years or so. Not at every one of the schools, but went on for a long time. I ended up moving back to Atlanta years later and I ended up speaking at several of the kids' graduations over the years in the 80’s at different high schools where the kids would have their graduations.

Suzy: Well, that's great. Because that's one of the things that we wondered when we were watching the film is if you had stayed in touch with any of the kids and what the kids themselves said about it years later.

Clark: I know none of that. It was a different era. We didn't have research constantly being done on things. We didn't have the Internet. Things were much more personal, much more organic in relationships and how things happened. Something that struck me, watching the film, there's no way today you would've made a film like that more than 90 seconds because people's attention span is... I think that runs seven minutes maybe? You got to do your pitch in about the time it takes to ride an elevator from the bottom floor to the 40th floor. People would have fallen asleep by the time you were two thirds of the way through that. They would have just said, "Okay, tell me what this is about. Okay, that's good."

Michael: The credits wouldn't fit on TikToK. You're right...

Clark: Right.

Michael: Well, another interesting thing, let me see, tell me if you can see this. [shows frame about 5:52 in video, on left] Do you know who this is?

Adam: That's Lisa Borders

photo of Adam Messer
Adam Messer

Clark: Really?

Adam: You know what she went on to do, right?

Clark: Yes. She ran for mayor and it was 2009 she ran for mayor, which was the second time I really strongly considered running for mayor and Lisa called me and wanted to talk to me. And we went to lunch. She wanted to see how serious I was about being one of the candidates running for mayor in '09. She said the funniest thing to me, she said, "you know, if you don't run for mayor and I win, I'd love for you to come in and figure out ways to cut the budget." I was like, "Lisa, thank you for the compliment, but that's never going to happen. Because all that would happen is everybody would hate me because I'd be the Ebeneezer Scrooge taking away whatever government spending they love. I'm never going to do a job like that."

Michael: That's great.

Adam: She went on to be involved with Women's National Basketball.

Clark: She was the commissioner of the WNBA.

Michael: Back to Atlanta Volunteer Action. The kids were coming over once a week, right?

Clark: Twice a week.

Michael: Twice a week. Okay, so for an hour at a time and you're right, we don’t have background information on how it helped, but I kind of wonder. To me, a lot of the value for these kids would just be seeing that there are other worlds,

Clark: The teachers I'll tell you, this is all not empirical, it's not objective. The school teachers loved what we were doing and the word kind of spread. And there was this big clamor for the Atlanta public schools to get into this program to be able to send their kids because we were taking the kids that were not learning the basics, were having trouble reading and writing. Couldn't do basic math. And these were kids that were going to be lost. The Literacy Action [] materials they were using back then, I'm sure they're much more sophisticated now, but they were great because even though they were designed for adults specifically to learn, to read and write, they worked really well with the young kids. And the Laubach teaching method was designed around volunteers again, adult to adult, but it worked equally well.

And they were fascinated apparently, at Laubach Literacy that we were able to use these adult materials, not adapt them for kids. And the kids were able to learn. Later in my life, I don't know if any, nobody knows this, but I was for a while, I was the acting director of the adult reading program at Literacy Action for a period of time when there was a vacancy in that job. And we were able, this is crazy, but we were able with adults to raise them six academic years in six weeks because the program was so good. What they learned is that people knew so much in their heads that if you're illiterate, you have to memorize things all the time. And it was just a matter of unlocking it. And so these kids knew more than they realized. And the traditional education system hadn't been able to unlock it in these kids.

And that's why the high school students with minimal training were able to do it with these kids. The math was tougher because we had to improvise a math curriculum because nobody had done anything like that, either for adults or kids with a streamlined math program. But we were able to do that with the reading pretty easily. It was almost like plug and play for us. In my twenties I started a school in Atlanta. I don't know if this is something you've heard about, but I started a school called Career Action. We took in young adults who’d been in trouble with the law, or they just had trouble getting life going. And they'd be referred to us either by the criminal justice system, the labor department, whatever. And we would take these young adults in and they would be with me for only nine weeks.

My school was first in East Point and then moved to College Park. We would bring these students in. Again, I used the Literacy Action, the Laubach Literacy thing and hired professional teachers there and hired teachers to teach math. We were able, in a nine week period, to raise these kids several grade levels. Kids, they were in their twenties and we would teach them skills so they could go get employed in a career kind of job. And that's why it was called Career Action. A non-college but career kind of job. The irony is the number one employer of our graduates was Equifax, which is a company that I've spent my broadcast career bashing for thirty some odd years. They needed a huge number of people that could do skilled clerical work. And they were number one. And number two, where the banks that back then needed a lot of clericals to process checks and other things, because there were no electronic means. And so it's really funny that my greatest allies with Career Action were organizations that I spent the next 30 some odd years just attacking all the time.

Suzy: Education in general is what's driving some of this conversation. Before I get into some more general things about education, was there any relationship between this program and the Odyssey program?

Clark: I'm not familiar with Odyssey.

Suzy: Are any of you guys familiar with Odyssey? Okay. It's a program Westminster sponsors. We did an interview with a young man who graduated from Westminster, went to Stanford, stayed out in California, taught special ed for a few years in his back in Atlanta now. And just in passing conversation, he mentioned that he had volunteered with Odyssey when he was at Westminster. I looked up the program. It's a six week summer program for kids who don't have the resources of the private schools. I wasn't sure who was running it, what it was doing, but it actually is sponsored by Westminster and on the campus of Westminster in summers. But I thought you might know about it since you in Atlanta. Maybe it's not as big as I thought it was from the reading about it.

Clark: It could be, Atlanta is almost 7 million people and we're all in our own orbits. And you know, it's weird that you're talking about something at Westminster I knew nothing about because for the last 10 years, until just recently, we live directly across the street from the Westminster campus. Two of my three kids went to Westminster for a period of time. One went pre-first to third and then the other one went there for pre-first and first. And it's funny that I knew so little about when, what went on at Westminster, cause they told us as parents, "Stay out of it, let us handle your kids."

Suzy: I was jumping off of things from your correspondence with Adam and saw that you mentioned that your son goes to Galloway. And I wasn't familiar with Galloway, so I looked it up. I was wondering because I was a dorm student, so I was only at Westminster my last three years. But you guys all were there for many years, I think. Correct. I mean, I know Michael was there all the years. Adam, when did you come?

Adam: I was 7th through 12th grade, so 6 years.

Clark: So was I. I was 7th through 12th. So, Michael is an Alpha Omega?

Suzy: Yeah.

Clark: Wow!

Suzy: So did you guys know Elliot Galloway at Westminster?

Clark: My brother took from Commander Galloway when he went to Westminster. He's nine years older than I am.

My oldest graduated from Galloway, went there six through 12 and my youngest is there nine through 12th. I know this is hard to get your arms around, but I still have a high school student and a grandbaby. So I'm like both extremes. And then my middle child graduated from Lovett after being at Westminster 10 years.

Suzy: I was interested in all this because I mean, when I saw that this guy who had started this school had been teaching at Westminster I found that all fascinating and I love the philosophy and mission and vision and all these things. And so I have this question that I, I don't know where we can go with it, but how do we, how do we make this private school education, the model for everyone? I mean, our schools obviously don't achieve this and we all know that this is what we want for our kids. I mean, to some extent how do we achieve that as a society?

Clark: Is that a question for any of us?

Suzy: A question for any of us.

Clark: All right. Well, who knows Cristo Rey? Cristo Rey, which is Christ the King and Spanish. Cristo Ray is a network of Catholic schools for poor kids who were at risk that started in California. There's a campus in Atlanta, they're around the country and they spend so little money per kid and they have phenomenal academic achievement. And what they've done is they've really looked at it differently. We spend a fortune on our kids in public school and they're with us just in the public school, just so many hours of the day. And then they've got all those months off in the summer and they go home in many cases to very unstable situations. Cristo Rey uses a method more like they do in South Korea.

The kids go to school almost all year round. They go to the school day is I think it's 10 or 11 hours long. The kids also do internships with companies through the school year. So some of the time they're not in school in the classroom, but they're in the class of life, basically being exposed to environments they wouldn't normally be in. And again, they spend like no money at all on the campus. They started in Atlanta, they went around hat in hand, kind of like me with Atlanta Volunteer Action. And they got used lockers from Pace Academy. They got used textbooks from Lovett. They got used computers from, I think, Westminster and other schools. And they have this ultra high achieving network of high schools around the country.

When you have a very high percentage go to college, like Westminster, like a hundred percent of the kids go to college, Cristo Rey it's near that. And they're doing it with kids that are from environments where even making it past 16 years old, before dropping out would be an achievement. My experience is that it's not really about the money. It's about how do you micro target the audience? The number one indicator of how somebody is going to do academically is what home environment they grew up in and what kind of family income they grew up in and what education the parents have. And that there's two parents in a household instead of one. I mean, they know all these things. So how do you deal with this huge percent of the population that comes from difficult backgrounds and it involves making school much more part of their lives, so that it's a counterweight to what goes on in the rest of their lives.

Michael: And when you think about Westminster, I mean, there's a cutoff, right? You have to test to get into Westminster. Maybe I got in because I was a legacy. I don't know.

Clark: Wait a minute, I thought you were one of the three smartest people in our class, you and Spencer Welch and Norman Speciner. Weren't you three, always the smartest kids in our class?

Michael: You couldn't tell it by my grades, but I always thought I was smart.

Clark: Well, I always told people, I graduated fourth from the bottom of my class. And when we moved earlier this year, we found my old report cards and I was such an exaggerator. I graduated 14 from the bottom of that class.

Michael: Then you have to tell them how large a class it was. It sounds less impressive.

Clark: 82 People.

Michael: Yeah. Okay. But Westminster focuses on the opposite end of the spectrum, right. They have a cutoff to get in. People have to have resources to cover the cost of it. Although I think they are probably generous with money to help people afford it. It's a different concept. I mean, it's an elite school for elite folk. All the rewarding seems to be for high achievement. It's not, where did you start and where did you end? Right. How much improvement do you have? It's did you come in smart and stay smart and exit smart kind of thing.

This Catholic program sounds fabulous and they're aiming at the people who would have the hardest time and people at Westminster, the people who would have the easiest time, no matter what right? Because if they weren't at Westminster, they would be in the best public schools, presumably.

Clark: Exactly.

Michael: And maybe raise the bar in those schools in terms of financial support.

Clark: Do you know Morris Brandon?

Adam: Yes.

Clark: So Morris Brandon has become one of, I think they're called the big five in Atlanta that are public elementary schools that are funded also by the parents whose kids go to these schools. So is Brandon Jackson, which is on Mount Paran and Sarah Smith on Old Ivy. Anyway, these five schools are run like private schools for rich kids. And it's just so true what you're saying about Westminster.

Suzy: I don't think that's legal in California.

Clark: Oh, who says it's legal here, that's just how it's done.

Adam: How do the parents get the money into the schools?

Clark: What they do is through the PTA.

Adam: Can I, can we circle back to the film for a minute? Clark I think you asked me to make a movie or something, right? I still remember that. So you asked me about that, cause I'd always been messing around with photography and stuff and you know, and I think that's, that's how we got the whole thing started. Isn't it?

Clark: Yeah. So the film was to go out and ask companies and wealthy individuals for money to fund the operation. I would go meet with the president of the school or headmaster or the board of trustees and pitch the program to be at their schools. Only with Riverwood I had to go to the Fulton County Board of Education and at a board meeting present the video and present the program before they would allow it into Riverwood, because then it was the Fulton County Schools helping out the City of Atlanta schools. So the film was really to go do the pitch, to get the money that I needed to grow the program and get additional schools. Because we got so many schools involved, Literacy Action could not afford to give us the materials anymore.

It went from this. "Oh, that's a cute little thing you're coming up with, high schooler" to "Wait a minute, this is big money we're talking about." I guess we had well more than a thousand volunteers, if you take all the schools involved. So we had to buy all these materials and a lot of the schools, we had to buy snacks and drinks for the kids and we had to buy basketballs and footballs and the sporting equipment and all that. So the film was really important in that era to be able to tell the story, because I could tell it with my youthful enthusiasm as a kid. Watching the video, people could see what the program actually did and who the target was and why we were doing it.

If I could get in to see somebody, I was pretty successful at getting money out of them, maybe not always what I asked for. I learned after the fact that I had the full arrogance of youth, because I'd go in and I'd ask for ridiculous amounts of money. And then they'd all feel like, you know, wherever I was, they felt like they were getting off so cheap with less money. It was kind of novel for people at companies and government to see a teenager come in and pitch a program, not an idea, but a program that already existed and why it was important to me and why it should be important to them. And the film was what clenched it.

Adam: You know, I didn't know that. Thank you.

Clark: I don't know if you remember this, the projector we had went on the fritz and do y'all remember there was a discount store called Zayre? It was one of the failed attempts to have a discount retailer. And I went to a store on what's now called Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, but then was called Gordon Road. And they had a projector, a Super 8 projector for $39. I went there and I bought the Super 8 projector. I don't know if you remember Adam, we had to time out a cassette player playing commentary and the video would run on a silent, Super 8 film projector. Well, the Super 8 projector was $39 for a reason. It didn't run at the right speed. It ran too fast and the voice track didn't didn't line up and we had to have the voice track rerecorded to fit the speed of this Super 8 projector that I had gone and bought for the $39.

Michael: In fact, the cassette Adam sent me had an A and B side. The A side is the Kodak projector and the B side is the Bell and Howell projector.

Clark: Okay. And which one was the $39?, the Bell and Howell, I guess?

Michael: Probably.

Suzy: I really wanted to talk about, you know, the film and the program, which Clark told us lots about. Cause I was curious how many schools were involved and you answered all that. It is interesting. The difference is like when you were talking about Cristo Rey. So programs that target high school kids, as opposed to elementary school kids, because obviously you know, a big difference of when you really impact these kids' lives. You mentioned going back to some high school graduations.

Clark: Those were high school graduations of the Atlanta Volunteer Action kids.

Suzy: That was what I was talking about. You were saying that because it's a different time, you don't have any information or contact with any of those kids, but you did for some period. It also reminded me of how cool it was that Dr. Presley was there at the little graduation, shaking all the hands of the kids. Because it obviously would serve to enforce the significance of this achievement and program and to show them again, other possibilities. It would be so cool if we could get ahold of any of those kids and find out what they actually thought, but I guess that's not going to happen.

Clark: Well, the only thing that did happen was I was in a Sam's Club on Clairmont Road. And this guy came up to me and said, "I was one of your kids." And I'm completely out of context. And it turned out, he was one of the kids that we had touched with the program, and he was doing great. He was talking about how much it meant to him his whole life. But that's totally anecdotal. It's not factual and it's not objective. It's just one guy. And then he helped me get a TV off the shelf and put it on a rolling cart.

Adam: Yeah. And I just gotta say we were always very impressed by what you did with AVA. You practically flunked out of Westminster, because AVA was all you did. I remember it was a little struggle to get you through. But it was just such a worthy thing and were all so fantastically impressed that you did it.

Clark: Well, all I can tell you is if I went to school in this era, they would've diagnosed me with so many deficiency initials. I would have been all the AD’s, whatever ADHD, ADD. I would have been everything. So it wouldn't have mattered, Adam. If I didn't do that, I still would have been a terrible student. I would just stare out the window, all class. I had no idea what was ever going on. And I had no ability to focus on any of that stuff. Because it bored me to tears. Then, if something bored me, I had no ability to absorb it. The only reason I got a Westminster diploma instead of a GED is because of a classmate of ours. You may or may not remember the name, Sam Dubose.

Adam: Of course.

Clark: I was failing, I don't know if it's UPC 2 or what it was. I was failing something. There were five people in our class that got GED’s at graduation instead of diplomas, by the way. And I didn't know which I was going to get. And Sam made me study with him, I think, for UPC. I don't remember exactly what course, whatever it was that I was failing. And I got a 75 on the exam, which was enough to get me through. The teacher gave me a 70 in the class and I was able to walk and get a Westminster diploma. And I don't know that in life, it would have mattered if I had gotten a GED instead of a Westminster diploma, but I was on the bubble and it was only because of Sam that I graduated.

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