Another program falls to apathy

Published 10:46 am Friday, March 20, 2015

Back before accepting this job at The Tidewater News, there were a few doubts. The doubts were big, but there were also a few selling points, and regret has never crossed my mind about coming here.

The doubts are obvious. Like many say about businesses considering Franklin: ‘Why would they when the schools are underachieving, the workforce is underdeveloped and the crime rate is high?’

A quick Google search revealed much of that. Some people called it “Little Detroit.” Having never been to Detroit, it’s hard to say how accurate that is. Based on the automobile city’s reputation, however, it’s not exactly a desirable sister-city comparison for Franklin.

Next up was rent. It was slightly cheaper than Suffolk, but rent is more expensive than Oxford, Mississippi, a preppy university town that was in commutable range to a Toyota plant, a Nissan plant and Memphis, Tennessee, with its major employers of FedEx and International Paper. The rent in nearby towns that didn’t feature colleges was even cheaper.

I can only imagine what the mortgages are in Franklin based on what local properties are listed for.

Google also brought up some good things. There was some success in football, namely the Southampton Academy Raiders, Franklin High School Broncos and Southampton High School Indians.

The Indians are in a slump but had been great, and the Broncos and Raiders had some recent state championships. Of course, Franklin also has the Cover 3 Foundation and the Little League Football program. Any community that took its football seriously couldn’t be all bad!

Western Tidewater also features the Blackwater and Nottoway rivers, where there is kayaking, camping and fishing to be had. Now, I’ve not exactly had time to enjoy the rivers like I wanted, but its certainly been interesting with Riverkeeper Jeff Turner around.

Speaking of the outdoors, the high schools also open up their tracks to the community. And there are plenty of miles of country roads for cycling and sidewalks for running.

But, thinking back, one of the first things that struck me that this community couldn’t be as bad as it was cracked up to be were some pictures I saw while Googling myself down a rabbit hole.

This was a place that built boats out of cardboard and tape. Trusting its cardboard engineering, the community then got in these boats to race for a local high school program. It was the Robo Regatta, which benefited Team 1610, the FIRST Robotics team at Franklin High School.

In fact, this weekend I hope to be traveling to Richmond to watch them compete for a chance to go to another international competition. They have been to internationals a remarkable number of times for a small-town program.

What I will not be doing, however, is showing up on a Saturday in May to take pictures on the Blackwater River. At least, if I do, it won’t be of people rowing for robots.

Last year, the participation had not been great and there were not enough spectators present. Franklin’s gifted instructor Liz Burgess, who organizes the Regatta, had expressed doubts about doing it again.

It was too much work — people don’t take the time to do it, she often said.

The new superintendent, Dr. Willie J. Bell, and The Tidewater News haven’t exactly seen eye to eye on every issue and solution he brings up. One statement I agree with, and I’m not speaking for the whole newspaper: It’s going to take the whole community to come together and care about fixing the schools.

Last weekend, I saw more people care about keeping chickens in the city than I’ve ever seen in regard to the schools. They certainly make some excellent points, and I encourage you to read the comments on if you care about keeping chickens in the city.

This week’s lesson was that many in the community can’t be bothered to go out on a Saturday for one of Franklin’s good events. Thinking back, the former superintendent wasn’t there and the only school board member present had a kid in one of the boats.

Certainly, they’ll make up the money they need to go to competitions by washing cars and through the Franklin-Southampton charities. The Camp family will write a check, so why should we go out of our way to participate in something fun for our children’s future?

Never mind the engineering skills the children could be learning by building these boats.

The superintendent also talks a lot about getting parents and stakeholders. That’s at least one step in the right direction for Bell, as the former school administrator denied that this was even a problem.

They’ve gone out in buses, knocking on doors to speak to parents about their children’s education.

To help with that, the Camp family has written another check so that Franklin can set up satellite centers, so the system can be closer to the parents. Hopefully, it works. It’s certainly hard for a child to care about his or her education if the parents or someone in the community doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re there for the football games, but where are we when they put on school plays? Where are we for the children trying to bring recycling to the city? The JROTC? The arts? Student government? The business programs? The reading programs? The list goes on. And if we don’t care, someone involved in the street life will certainly show them something that passes for caring.

The apathy even gets to the children that do well. Every time I interview a success story in the system, they laugh at the question of coming back home after college. Certainly, some kids are going to want to leave their home town, but it shouldn’t be every single one of them. Maybe if we at least pretend to care about events like the Regatta, then there would be more programs like it to give children good memories that make them think this community is worth fighting for.

The Camp foundations can keep a lot of the programs afloat, but it can’t fix Franklin’s apathy.

To care, we’re going to have to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves a question. Do we want to be Franklin, a small city with a lot of success in the past that has potential to do it again; or do we want to be “Little Detroit?”

If it’s the former, why don’t we consider running for that school board opening? Serving on a community committee? Being a mentor for a program that strikes your interest? Go to an event that’s not a football game? Or even ‘Like’ or comment on something that’s positive for the community?

It doesn’t have to be a lot. All we have to do is care. Then when we care about the future of Franklin, encourage other people to do the same.

If enough children cared about their future, it wouldn’t take a lot to turn the system around. If enough parents cared about how their children did in school, then it wouldn’t be hard to encourage children to care.

If the school system was turned around and the workforce was developed, we could better attract businesses and the crime rate would go down.

Or we could keep throwing money at a problem that’s got a lot to do with apathy. Maybe it will eventually work itself out.

In the meantime, we can just kick back in the armchair, get on Facebook and message boards to insult the people who are actually trying until they give up, too. Then, we can wonder why city officials have to beg people to serve on the school board and still only get one candidate to pick from.

Some day, maybe the joke one Tidewater News commenter made will come true: Calling Franklin “Little Detroit” will be more insulting to Detroit.

CAIN MADDEN is the managing editor of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at 562-3187 or