John Wiley is on a late-in-life mission to throw a safety net to teenagers he believes are on the road to a lifetime of poverty -- kids who feel a disconnect at school, who come from dysfunctional families, who don’t see college as an even remotely viable option. In his new book, “Our Bottom Half Teens: A Caring Community-Driven Solution to Rescue Young Lives Trapped in a Broken System,” Wiley lays out a plan that includes a massive expansion of apprenticeship programs in high schools, calling on businesses and schools to collaborate to give students the ability to opt into a paid apprenticeship program as early as their sophomore year. “Bottom Half Teens” might not be the most politically correct term, Wiley admits, but it’s one that gets the point across. Those students who are unmotivated in school and whose grades put them in the bottom half of their class with little desire to improve need another option. The apprenticeship track gives them that option, the chance to learn a skill and get workplace training (while earning money) so they are ready to work full time and succeed after high school. “You can’t not give kids a chance,” Wiley says. “Every kid needs to be loved, every kid needs to be important, every kid needs to be valued. Every kid needs those things.” So, who is John Wiley? The 76-year-old Appleton, Wisconsin teacher-turned-entrepreneur-turned-activist has founded and run several companies, worked as an executive at two chambers of commerce, helped launch a Boys and Girls Club in his beloved Fox Valley, chaired a juvenile violence task force and worked hand in hand with the Salvation Army for a decade and a half. Two years ago he was so inspired by Matthew Desmond’s book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” that he spent more than $30,000 of his own money to purchase and distribute thousands of copies of the book to Fox Valley community leaders, business leaders and others in hopes that they, too, would see and act on the need for more affordable housing and other life lines for those who struggle to stay afloat. Following that experience, he began writing a series of essays about how we’re failing the “bottom half” kids, pushing a significant percentage of teens through high school knowing the bleakness that awaits once they are adults. Those essays led to his new book. He hopes it’s the beginning of a new conversation, a grassroots movement with buy-in from the students, their parents, the schools and employers. “It has to be the community,” Wiley says of addressing these issues. “It’s not the school’s fault. It’s not the police department’s fault. It’s the community that has to do these things. We as citizens don’t have any responsibilities. The Democrats all say the government should do it. The Republicans say let everyone fend for themselves. It isn’t them. It’s us. It’s our standards, it’s our values that allow this to happen.” Wiley has lived out a career as an entrepreneur in Wisconsin. His "working" career began teaching "slow learners" and "discipline problems" for four years in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He would later run the Oshkosh and Neenah-Menasha chambers of commerce for seven years, help found and build Outlook Graphics for 34 years, and own Elipticon Wood Products for 24 years. He has been an active member of the Rotary Club for 45 years, serving as the District Governor in 1994-1995. His passion to serve disadvantaged families and children led him to serve on the board of the Salvation Army for 14 years. In addition, he was instrumental in developing Project Home and with others in starting a day-care alternative high school in Wautoma, Wisconsin and a 24/7 care alternative high school in Reedsville, Wisconsin. He also chaired the Mayor's Juvenile Violence Task Force, the Chamber of Commerce's Apprenticeship Program in the 1990s, and Fox Valley Lutheran High School's Blue-Ribbon Committee and Funding a Fresh Start Committee, all in Appleton. Wiley has been married for 51 years to his wife, Sandy, and has been blessed with four children: Nell, Ben, Ladd, and Rica along with his 10 "sparkling" grandchildren.
John invited Dave, as a friend, to read Evicted. John then shared his plan for this book. Dave grew up in the Fox Cities. His dad Spencer was the first person in his family to attend college . . . a wonderful gift from the Kimberly family who paid Spencer's way to graduate from Lawrence College. It's a story that surely fits the message of this book about what it means to be a friend to those in the "Bottom Half." Dave enjoyed the opportunity to meet regularly with John about his book project and to experience John's passion to "be a friend" for those who truly need a voice in our society. "As John penned page after page, it was my pleasure to help him develop and more clearly organize his writing. Thank you, John, for being a friend and giving me the opportunity to think deeply about this important subject."