I was driving through Northeast D.C. on my way to work. It was summertime and we were working hard to prepare for the upcoming year. As I turned the corner, I saw a shirtless kid riding a bike heading in my direction. As we met, I tried to keep my eyes straight ahead – I thought he would give me the finger or do something obscene.
Just as I was about to pass him, I glanced over at him quickly. He threw me a kiss! I felt such joy and pain at the same time as I yelled, “Thank you!” to him. I’d been an educator for many years, so why did I have such a negative perception of this young man? How much research had I read about misconceptions, stereotypes, and low expectations? How beautiful that he wished me well by throwing me a kiss. My initial reaction troubled me that day and in the days after.
Almost a decade later, there are still some things that just bother my mind when it comes to children and adults. The number of children whose chances for success are tainted by barriers such as poverty. Although I’ve had the opportunity to work with schools in D.C., New York, Chicago, Tulsa, Detroit, and Maryland, children in Arkansas are primarily on my mind these days. According to 2015 statistics from KidCount, 27 percent of Arkansas children under 18 live in poverty and 11 percent are trapped in extreme poverty. We know that poverty is the greatest threat to healthy child development and has a negative impact on academics and behavior. Additionally, Arkansas ranked 45th in the nation in overall child well-being in 2017.
In 2015, roughly 15 percent of Arkansas high school students did not graduate on time. In 2016, 20% of the students in LRSD didn’t graduate on time, and 56% of those who attended college required remediation. According to a 2016 report entitled “Out of Pocket” released by Education Reform Now, families spent on average more than $12,000 on their students in college to “study content they should have learned in high school.” Based on March 2014 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, high school dropouts are nearly three times more likely to be unemployed than college graduates. And based on the calculations by the Alliance for Excellent Education even when employed, high school dropouts earn about $8,000 a year less than high school graduates and approximately $26,500 a year less than college graduates.
From 2010 to 2014, seven counts of murder were attributed to minors in Little Rock. In that same period, seven rapes were connected to teens under the age of 18 in the capital city. From 2010–2014, LRPD recorded 194 aggravated assault charges, 131 robberies to businesses and 147 robberies to individuals, all connected to suspects age 18 and under. A criminal background and entanglement with the criminal justice system go hand in hand with low educational levels and high poverty.
Early learning needs are not being met. According to the USDE, almost 50% of 4-year-olds in Arkansas do not have access to publicly funded preschool programs. It further reports that while most children who have access to preschool attend moderate-quality programs, African American children and children from low-income families are the most likely to attend low-quality preschool programs and the least likely to attend high-quality preschool programs. We worry about students being college-ready, let’s turn our attention to making sure that they are Kindergarten Ready. The pipeline to readiness is dismal, and the learning gaps remain for many throughout their school experience.
Our children, their needs, their hopes and their dreams should be things that continuously bother our minds. The statistics listed above should disturb our minds and break our hearts. The chances of success for many children are already dismal at the age of 10. We have a collective responsibility to change the narrative. When will we start putting children and families first?
Our schools should be places where excellence is the norm and not the goal. Our goal should be brilliance. Teachers must believe in their ability to produce brilliance and believe that each child is capable of being brilliant regardless of how they look or where they live. And teachers must believe in their brilliance. Your voice matters. Your touch is crucial.
The Call: As a community of concerned people, we must decide that our children deserve the full attention of our collective moral intellect. We must move from the position of celebrating mediocrity and asserting that only certain entities can address the problem, and begin partnering and collaborating on the actions that will move children FORWARD – all of them. Our hearts should be where the children are; home schools, private schools, public charter schools, or district schools. All schools matter because all children matter. Children belong to their parents and parents deserve to have choices to select an educational option that works best for each of their children.
The Response: Change our perceptions. We owe every child, every day, at every school our best efforts. Not rhetoric but a refusal to accept mediocrity, low performance and canceled dreams as the norm. Regardless of where they live or what they look like, see the promise of every child. It is time to do more so that our children and youth can be more. They all belong to us. We should have the moral courage to be radical advocates for children and youth; not for systems and certainly not for systems that are struggling to meet the many needs. Our children deserve every opportunity to be successful. It is imperative that we lay down our own agendas and embrace the mission of creating young people who are equipped to change the world through their knowledge, their experiences, their perspectives, and their desires to solve problems. The mission matters more.
Together it is time to change the statistics about children. They deserve it.
“For these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for what they become.” — James Baldwin
Dr. Phillis Nichols Anderson is a champion for youth and families, an Educational Reformer with more than 25 years of experience in K-16 public education and considers herself a Socially Conscious Entrepreneur. She is the Executive Director and Founder of ScholarMade Educational Services, Inc., an Arkansas based nonprofit educational management organization, which provides educational and operational support to schools and organizations. She chairs the Social Justice Institute Steering Committee at Philander Smith College.