My View: Parents demand that schools innovate to improve education

One of my favorite quotes about education is by Nelson Mandela. He said, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

Of course, Nelson Mandela was talking about a fractured society and the national state of politics during apartheid.

But really, politics is so deeply linked to education. Who we vote for, who we protect, what we reward and who is best positioned to seize the day — these things affect us from the moment we are born, while we are in in school, and throughout our lives.

The opportunities that people of color receive as adults are simply extensions of those opportunities received, or never presented, as children. The opportunities we get, the doors that are opened for us, the people who blaze a trail or are pioneers for a cause — this is what Black History Month is about.

Children who grow up in families and attend schools with a plenitude of opportunities have such a tremendous advantage over those who are left to be their own teachers or find their own way. When we talk about the achievement gap in education, we’re really talking about this.

It is often said that parents are our first teachers. I was blessed to have a father who was a powerful force and a true inspiration. As a young boy he would wake me up every morning and say, “The sun’s coming up and something good is going to happen today.”

He worked hard as a night watchman at an IBM plant after years of playing jazz in New York City. He had lots of reasons to stay in bed every morning, but for as long as I lived under his roof, he didn’t just get himself up and out; he launched me and my two sisters out into the world of expectations, for ourselves and for the day.

My father taught me about personal integrity, respect and responsibility, but with less-than-impressive grades in junior high, I was slated for the vocational track in high school instead of the college track. The counselor told my father, “Your boy’s just not college material,” and showed him guidelines and test scores.

He wasn’t fazed by some line in a grade book and simply said in a firm voice, “My boy is smart; he’s heading to college, ma’am. And you’re standing in the way. Just give him a chance.” My father demanded the future for me and he got it.

Parents must advocate for their children, demand better schools and be vocal about their children’s needs. They must also understand the leverage points within the community that can help bring about change.

Without parent and community involvement, the efforts of superintendents and educational leaders will make some gains but will not reach the ultimate goal of achieving sustainable progress. Too often poverty, limited language skills and other environmental factors conspire against many of our students and families, and make even the best efforts of a teacher fall short of a true and collective impact.

It’s our challenge to build the bridges that will transcend these obstacles to success. We must set high expectations for all students and provide them with the necessary resources to meet those goals. While funding is important, human spirit and drive are invaluable, and the only limit is our imagination. We need to think big and be innovative about how we help all students become successful.

And historically, we have fallen on this critical point. All students must be successful. And it’s not just test scores that define success. We fall short if we have students who can score well on tests but care little about their neighbors and know nothing of how to navigate the world with civility and respect.

We need to be diligent not only in providing for and measuring academic rigor but also in what Dr. King called the “content of our character.” We must embrace his vision and implement sustainable education reforms that “open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children.”

Given the period of change in which we find ourselves, it will take courage to make some difficult decisions and uncomfortable changes. We must embed into our culture that all children can and do learn. With this belief comes an unprecedented commitment to do whatever it takes to get results.

That means making sacrifices to provide the resources needed to benefit all children and responding to their needs in ways that are appropriate to them. This is where, politically and socially, we have fallen. And this is how we will prove we have the courage to rise.

Rudy Crew, Oregon’s chief education officer, offered these comments during the Black History Month Celebration Feb. 15 at Grant High School.

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