As schools across America open their doors this fall, debates about how best to educate the 49 million of us in public schools take center stage once again. America seems divided and paralyzed as to the best approach on how none of us are left behind. My own personal experience suggests that fundamental reform must be on the top of America's national agenda.
Last summer, before my junior year of high school, I had the privilege of working with "Upward Bound," a program for low-income D.C. public high school students on track to graduate. The program has dual objectives: in addition to teaching students the skills needed to excel in higher education, it keeps them safe and off the streets.
I was shocked to realize that my kids (those I was assigned to help) must have been given an indifferent pass throughout their secondary education because I had to coach them on aspects of reading, writing and comprehension that should have been mastered well before entering high school. The kids accepted into this program are little different than me in intellect, talent, and drive; however, they are stuck in a system that seems hopelessly inadequate. How can we level the playing field so that we all have a greater opportunity to become productive members of society, not just those who live in more affluent communities?
What is the problem? The problem is not teachers. I have had good teachers and bad teachers. Nor is the problem the administration. There are good administrators and non-responsive ones. The age or quality of the school building is not the problem. Some are old and decrepit and some are new. It is also not because of a higher incidence of broken families. I, like many of my fellow students, am the product of a broken family. The problem is a combination of all of the above factors. Therefore, any solution has to be holistic and must provide choices for those with higher aspirations. Without exception my kids wanted to leave their schools for better ones. They were not given any choice, however, and never would have were it not for "Upward Bound." Not to give these kids who want to learn the opportunity to succeed is the worst crime.
How can we turn abysmal inner-city high-poverty school systems around?
Here are some ideas. First, I think a national apprenticeship program that allows for a dual education system should be established. This will serve to teach skills other than rote learning to those who simply cannot finish high school as well as address the issue of jobless youth. Graduates of these apprenticeship academies can then be recruited by companies that require special skills such as auto mechanics, pluming, engineering, carpentry, or medical technicians.
These are well-paying jobs that on average pay five to six times the minimum wage. As my "Upward Bound" friends would say: "You cannot be inspired if you are not hired."
Second, successful non-profit organizations like "Upward Bound" and the Urban Alliance should be established nationwide. The Urban Alliance has changed the lives of hundreds of low-income minority students in D.C. by providing them with a one-year internship during their senior year at institutions like the World Bank. According to Veronica Nolan, the Executive Director of the Urban Alliance, a $10,000 donation can turn the life of an inner-city senior in D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, New York or Philadelphia around. The combined elementary-secondary school expenditure for 2009 in California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania was $177 billion. 10 percent of this figure would allow 1,700,000 internships each year for those who apply -- not an entitlement but an opportunity.
Third, urban planners must incorporate education into their designs for successful cities. For example, when you compare Bangalore (the Silicon Valley of India) to Detroit, it becomes clear that the establishment of an engineering school or teaching institution produces a knowledge-based local economy. Closely related to creating Bangalores in our inner cities, it is also important to incentivize the middle classes who have fled the inner cities to return and in the process create role models for kids who currently have no one to look up to. It makes a difference when one see a lawyer or doctor in their neighborhood as opposed to hopelessness or worst yet, criminal elements.
Some years ago, a Princeton University senior's thesis ended up becoming a national program called "Teach For America." Today teachers from Teach For America are at the forefront of educating the next generation of Americans. Hopefully some aspiring senior at a university in the U.S. can write his or her thesis on how my friends at "Upward Bound" can get the same quality education I was privileged to obtain and contribute to the well-being of our country.