As we recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday today, we will certainly hear about “The Dream,” explained eloquently by Dr. King as he spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963.
Reflecting today, I know how blessed I am by The Dream and that my own opportunities and successes are a gift from those who came before me, especially those who marched and fought for civil rights even at the expense of their own well-being, their own fortunes … and sometimes their own lives. Those sacrifices paved the way for a world in which we strive for equity and fairness for all, and that success isn’t determined on the color of one’s skin, the wealth of one’s family or the zip code of one’s home.
The Dream is alive today … and we must keep it well.
Within our own schools, we have students who need to be better served by our district and supported by our community. They are unable to keep up because their families are struggling without resources, facing intergenerational poverty and needing quality educational services from birth to high school graduation to college. For example, in too many schools, more than 80 percent of our students are not reading on grade level.
Research findings highlighted just this month during a forum of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education. In their “Top 10 Issues to Watch in 2017” report, they noted a Harvard University study showing American children are less likely than children living in other developed countries to grow up and make more money than their parents.
The lack of social mobility – this ability to work one’s way out of poverty – is especially prominent in the Southeast United States. The metro Atlanta region ranked 48th out of 50 of the nation’s largest commuting areas. In short, that means that children born into poverty in Atlanta face some of the greatest odds of working their way out of poverty than anywhere in the developed world.
The City of Atlanta ranks first in the nation for income inequality, with one in four residents living in poverty, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s report called Changing the Odds: The Race for Results in Atlanta. Even as our city thrives, the median household income for black families is $26,605 and is $84,944 for white families.
That same report reveals how our families in high poverty do not have access to critical programs in early childhood education. More than 80 percent of 3- and 4-year-old children in the wealthier areas of our city were enrolled in preschool compared to only about 25 percent of children from the least wealthy.
These are the kind of numbers and reports that keep me committed to long hours at the office and focused all of the time on the Journey of Transformation in Atlanta Public Schools.
While these may be disheartening statistics, they didn’t happen overnight, and, for African Americans in particular, go all the way back to slavery. So it won’t be fixed overnight, which is why I respect and honor today people like Rep. John Lewis and others who have committed their lives’ work to truly achieving Dr. King’s elusive and worthy Dream.
From where I sit as an urban schools superintendent, I know the work is hard, having already dedicated two decades of my life to helping us achieve The Dream. And we must take effective action to change these outcomes so The Dream will not degenerate into a dream deferred for far too many children.
As we moved into a new year and in honor of today, I renewed a solemn resolution to do my part to not let that happen in Atlanta. Earlier this month, the Atlanta Board of Education offered me a chance to add another year to my term as superintendent. I humbly accepted the offer as I plan to stay in Atlanta until the transformation of its public school system is complete.
We have a lot of work ahead, but I believe we have the right people with the right attitudes and the right plans to fully achieve The Dream and give every child in Atlanta a fighting chance at a choice-filled life.
The Dream is a legacy for all of us to hold, a legacy for all of us to keep. It stays alive through a conscious decision to act with a strong will and determination and only becomes deferred when people look away and do nothing.
We all have choices – in Atlanta, our choice is to act.
Hope. It’s my dream for APS to work to keep The Dream alive and help change the lives of our children so that they, too, can dream and achieve and prosper.
Nonviolence. It’s my dream for all of our students to live in a safe, caring world and to develop the social emotional skills they need to cope and overcome whatever challenges they face.
Equality. It’s my dream to see us close achievement and opportunity gaps where all of our students have an equal chance at a great education with 100 percent of APS students reading on grade level.
Opportunity. And it’s my dream that every single one of them will earn a high school diploma that gives them many opportunities for college, for careers and for life.