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A Graduation Speech for the Adults of California

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It's graduation season and tassled caps will be flying across the state in celebration of our accomplished young graduates. I will be addressing the class of 2010 at a number of high school graduations, but today, I'd like to address the audience - the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, principals and coaches.

This day may be about celebrating our students' graduation, but their success is our success as well. For the past 18 years, we've seen them through all their ups and downs. We've been there to lend a helping hand, to push and challenge, to help with homework, and to cheer them on, and ultimately, they made it. As we watch them walk across that stage, we hope we have prepared them to take on the world.

Now think about the kids we know who didn't make it. Here in California, one out of five freshmen won't make it to their high school-graduation. For our Latino and African American students, that number is as high as one out of four and one out of three.

That's on us. That's our failure.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to fail one. In this failure, we are all culpable, whether for our actions or for inaction that has allowed the status quo to become mediocrity. We, as adults, have failed to make every child a priority.

Fifty-six years after the courts ruled in Brown vs. the Board of Education, we have still failed to provide an equal education to every student in the state. And when we fail to provide this equal opportunity--when we fail to educate--we incarcerate. Seventy percent of those incarcerated dropped out of school. That is why I believe education is the great equalizer, a civil right, and our best shot at economic prosperity.

One of the messages I have been taking to our graduates is that we must defy the odds. As the Chair of the California Senate Education Committee, I often cite statistics to drive a point home, but on a personal level, I have worked to change them entirely.

As a Latina growing up in Barstow, California, statistical predictions showed it was highly unlikely I would graduate from high school, much less college or graduate school. Even today, less than a half percent of Latinas hold a PH.D. There were adults in my life who told me college was not in the cards for me. Fortunately, I ignored them completely, and ultimately earned my PH.D. in Psychology from UC Riverside. I defied similarly slim odds to be elected to the Legislature.

I have urged our graduates to defy the odds in their own lives because change isn't something you talk about, it's something you do.

There is a saying: Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it. We could say the same about statistics. For many years, we have heard depressing statistics about our schools, about the number of high school dropouts and the persistent achievement gap, especially in our communities of color.

The numbers are less important than what we do about them.

I challenge the adults out there to take the advice we're dispensing to our graduates: Take responsibility for your actions. Be the change you want to see in the world. Help those in need.

In the same way we put our own children's needs first all these years, we need to put the needs of all the children in California first and set aside our adult concerns. When you hear about a school with poor test scores or one that is unsafe, imagine that it is your child trying to learn there every day.

Our public schools do not exist to employ people. They do not exist to support the educational services or textbook industries. They were not established to guarantee school districts certain annual revenues.

They have just one purpose--to educate our children. Our kids only get one shot at an education--one shot at a childhood--that prepares them for a successful future. Every year that we spend arguing and delay making the necessary reforms, we fail another year of should-be graduates.

Enough with the task forces--we know what we need to do. We need to make every child a priority. We need to believe that every child can learn. We need effective teachers in every classroom. We need to take radical steps to turn around our chronically low-performing schools and end the status quo dropout factories. We need to succeed at providing every child with a quality education that will prepare them to take on the world.

Elect the leaders who are brave enough to make those changes. Stand behind them. Be the change.

President Obama hasn't flinched in standing up to the status quo with his Race to the Top competition.

I have challenged our graduates to defy the odds and challenge the status quo. I am fighting to be the change our children deserve. Will you?

Gloria Romero (D-East Los Angeles) chairs the Senate Education Committee, championing legislation to turn around low-performing schools and empower parents.