Approximately 1.1 million kids began the school year recently in my
hometown: New York City. More than 40 years ago, well before a
growth spurt brought my height to 6'9", I was one of those kids.
Of course this was long before an NCAA basketball championship at
Villanova and prior to playing and coaching in the NBA. Back then my
world was the Monroe Projects in The Bronx. I was almost always in
one of three places: the classroom, the playground, or on the
basketball court of P.S. 100. And I was fortunate to have support
from a strong network of caring adults who guided me through some
rough and challenging situations.
I grew up in a loving two-parent home. But besides my mom and dad,
many others showed an interest in me. There was my fourth-grade
teacher Mrs. Rafel, as well as Dave McCullough for whom I played
youth basketball and Steve Post, my coach at Adlai Stevenson High
School in the Bronx. They taught me many things, perhaps the most
important of which was about the power of possibility and believing in
Many New York City kids don't have that same support today. Indeed,
much has been written and said about the education crisis. And for
good reason; the statistics are shocking. According to the Mayor's
office, an estimated 40 percent of New York City high school students won't
graduate on time. And less than 25 percent of the students in New York City
public schools are prepared for college, according to data from the city
The situation is no better on a national basis. In fact, the Department
of Education has identified 2,000 schools that produce more than half
of our nation's high school drop outs, almost 75% of those are from
African-American and Latino communities.
As President Clinton noted in his speech at the Democratic National
Convention in September, the United States has fallen to 16th
in the percentage of young adults with college degrees. Perhaps not
surprisingly, forty-three percent of high school dropouts under the age
of 24 are jobless.
Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education in the Obama
administration, is taking steps to address some of the problems, such
as advocating greater local decision-making, particularly with low-
performing schools, as well as setting college and career-ready
standards in a majority of states.
That's Duncan's job, but many other Americans are contributing in
small, creative ways to help fix public education. Consider the ping
pong competition atop the Mondrian Hotel in Soho last month between
John Wallace and Larry Johnson, both former New York Knicks players,
and Jerry Stackhouse of the Brooklyn Nets.
They've joined me in support for TopSpin, an organization that stages
ping pong tournaments as a way to raise awareness and funds for
some amazing educational non-profit organizations. These groups
provide a critical support network and enrichment to young people in
Since it inception three years ago, TopSpin has raised almost
$750,000 using ping pong as the hook to bring the sports and
entertainment business community together. While it isn't the hoop
court, we have a blast competing once again. Our involvement in
TopSpin is very much a local effort. This is New Yorkers giving back to
our own. It's a fun way to engage in the larger battle that needs to be
waged school-by-school and community-by-community.
While TopSpin certainly doesn't have all the answers to the education
crisis, I'm passionate about its local approach. We're supporting a
diverse array of programs, from a summer enrichment initiative called
Horizons in Brooklyn, to a local chapter of A Better Chance, which
provides educational opportunities for minority students across the
country. Through TopSpin, we've also "adopted" an elementary school
on the Lower East Side through the Change For Kids program, which
partners with underprivileged New York City public schools to provide
a broad range of educational programming.
Coaches, teachers and family formed a combined support network
during my youth. TopSpin and other programs like it are helping to
ensure that support now exists where it's most needed.
During presidential-election years, we often hear a lot about the great
promise of America, and despite economic uncertainty and persistently
high unemployment, this year is no exception. Like many others, I
still believe in the promise of America. But we all know this promise
will be empty without a strong system of quality public education for
I agree with Arne Duncan, a former basketball player himself, when he
calls education "the great equalizer." And I agree with President
Obama when he describes education as the gateway to a better future.
I also agree that if we don't make more of a commitment to education
today, there will be no tomorrow for too many of the kids enrolled in
We have to do more than pay lip service to "support" the schools.
There needs to be a real support network for kids. And this will only
happen if people get more deeply involved in local communities and
volunteer with organizations that work to strengthen public education.
Whether with TopSpin or the other remarkable organizations, we can
make a real difference. Indeed, as Marion Wright Edelman of the
Children's Defense Fund says, "If we don't stand up for children, then
we don't stand for much."
Ed Pinckney, currently an assistant coach of the Chicago Bulls, had a 12-year career in the NBA. Peter Farnsworth is the founder of TopSpin, and he runs Foxrock Partners, a brand and business development consultancy.