Spreading Hope

January 20, 2009 witnessed the swearing-in of the forty-fourth president of the United States, Barack H. Obama. This event was significant for many reasons. The nation, for the first time in its history, elected an African-American to its top office. This act by the American people symbolized to many the end of a brutal era of inequity, discrimination, and human separation along many different lines. Over two million American citizens traveled to Washington, D.C. to witness this event and the theme of the day was hope.

Why are Americans so hopeful? From my observations, it appears that people are hopeful about creating a society where there are limitless possibilities for every citizen, even those who were not blessed with privilege and wealth. The fact that only fifty years ago African-Americans could not drink from the same fountain as white Americans and today an African-American serves as commander-in-chief is significant and should make people hopeful for a more egalitarian society. But, what I hope is not missed is the fact that it was not Barack Obama’s skin color that helped him to ascend to the most powerful position in the world, it was his ability to think, articulate, and connect with the American people. He is a graduate of Ivy League schools and served as the editor of the Harvard Law Review. Barack Obama is not just black, he is smart!

His ascension is only important to traditionally marginalized groups if we produce students, of all races and walks of life, with the same level of skill that President Obama possesses. There is no better place to start this ‘renewal’ of the American promise than in the public school system. Why the public school system? It is the only institution that provides access to education regardless of race, religion, social class, or any other social characteristic.

Hope has to spread beyond Washington if this renewal is going to be real. In a 2007 study published by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), they identified four primary reasons, or risk factors, to explain why students do not perform well at school:

  1. Students living with one parent
  2. Students who miss more than three days of school per month
  3. Students under the age of 5 with parents who do not read to them daily
  4. Students who are in the eighth grade or beyond who watch from 4-5 hours of television daily

Obviously, interpersonal relationships are difficult and it will take a national effort to keep families together to reduce the number of single parent homes, but the other three factors can be easily eliminated by any parent at anytime. If we are going to create the nation that the participants at the inauguration hoped for, we have to do more than admire our forty-fourth president; we have to nurture students who can grow to emulate the substance of President Obama. Why can’t we begin with the students and parents in our schools that are most at-risk and make this historic event more than just a symbolic gesture? With the unity of Americans at all levels, especially at the educational level, we can create “a more perfect union.”