Presidents' Day always makes me remember my maternal grandfather, who encouraged my brother and me to learn the names of all the U.S. presidents and vice presidents when we were still in the early grades. When we got together each week, we would play quiz show, mimicking the popular TV shows of that era. He would give us our assignment the week before and then reward us with pocket change for our correct answers the following week. He also had us learn each of the states and their capitals, as well as difficult spelling words.
My grandfather, who came to this country from Russia at age six, had to leave school at 14 to work as an errand boy to help his family of 10. But he knew the importance of learning. He later secured a plum position at the Post Office and courted and married my grandmother, who was one of 12 children born to immigrants.
My grandmother had graduated from high school, which she attended at night -- something that was unusual for her day and station. My grandparents later ran a drug store with a soda fountain and put my mother, their only daughter, through college. When my mother graduated from New York University in 1943, she enlisted in the military after seeing a film about the Nazis. A generation later, my brother and I both received advanced degrees.
Only in America -- the land of freedom and opportunity -- is such advancement possible. Only in America could an errand boy have a daughter graduate from college and grandchildren earn a doctorate and a law degree. Only in America could individuals from humble origins -- such as Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Lyndon Johnson -- become president of the U.S. Only in America could Oprah Winfrey achieve her incredible success. Despite being born into poverty, her grandmother taught her to read when she was three-years-old. Later, when she went to live with her father as a teenager, he made education a priority.
Traditionally, public education in the United States was considered the passport that would level the playing field for the poor and disadvantaged. But an article in last week's New York Times reported that several research studies indicate that while the racial gap has been shrinking, there is a widening achievement gap between affluent and poor students that is threatening to weaken education's equalizing effects.
Researchers aren't certain why, but some hypothesize that affluent children may perform better because their parents spend more time and money in providing them with enriching experiences, such as tutoring, music lessons, and literacy activities. Additionally, they appear to be more involved in their children's schools. The recession likely has exacerbated this disparity.
But James J. Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, contends that parenting counts as much or more than income in developing a child's ability to learn and succeed in school.
"Early life conditions and how children are stimulated play a very important role," he said. "The danger is we will revert back to the mindset of the war on poverty, when poverty was just a matter of income, and giving families more would improve the prospects of their children. If people conclude that, it's a mistake."
One young person who still believes in the power of education to be the great equalizer is Samantha Garvey, the 18-year-old Brentwood, L.I., high school senior who in January was named a semi-finalist in the Intel Science Competition while her family was living in a homeless shelter. She is president of her school's chapter of the National Honor Society, and has a 3.9 grade point average. Her amazing story so captivated the public that Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone arranged for her family to move into a rent-subsidized home.
"My family's setbacks are a source of motivation. I want to get my family ahead, which is why I do well in school," Samantha told Newsday.
"My daughter is a blessing," her mother, Olga Garvey Coreas, an immigrant from El Salvador, told The Huffington Post's Latino Voices. "I never tire of thanking God for giving her the talent she has. She lives dedicated to her studies -- nothing stops her."
She added that parents must be vigilant in encouraging and supporting their children's education. She pointed out that her husband, Leo, worked nights and that she worked days.
"The fact was that we never left them alone; we were always there to help them with their homework," she said. "I believe that good communication is the basis for guiding our children."
As we observe Presidents' Day, let's remember the promise and the possibilities of our country. We must ensure that public education continues to be the great equalizer. But that requires a team. We need more parents like Samantha Garvey's, who encouraged her to learn despite the odds -- enabling their daughter to achieve the unimaginable. We need more teachers like the ones in the Brentwood Public Schools, who embraced and encouraged Samantha, enabling her to shine. Samantha, of course, deserves credit for internalizing her parents' values and grasping the opportunities her school offered.
There is no substitute for active and involved parents partnering with caring public schools. They are still our country's best hope for enabling young people to become all they are capable of being.