March 11, 2010
Thank you for inviting me to share this special day with you. It’s an honor to celebrate the 25 years that this organization has spent helping students to stay – and to thrive – in school.
Every one of you – teachers and administrators, volunteers and contributors, agencies and angels – should feel so proud of Communities in Schools’ success. You’ve built this organization up, from one serving four Austin campuses to one that serves 55. You’ve created and launched innovative programs that touch on everything from promoting literacy to providing low-income families with computers.
But even more than all of that, you’ve turned your mission into a legacy. Thousands upon thousands of Central Texas kids have walked through doors that they might easily have missed – and that, really, they might have doubted they could even open – without Communities in Schools.
In that, your calling is as tough as they come. You’ve got to help kids see entirely new opportunities, and in many cases you’ve got to convince those kids that they’re sharp enough, and strong enough, to take advantage of those chances.
You know, better than I do, that your effort means far more than simply helping kids with their homework or getting them ready for a test.
It means convincing them that their work matters and will lead to something valuable. It means helping them know that they can succeed and prosper in ways that even their families can hardly imagine. It means planting and growing true self-esteem and true self-confidence – the greatest gifts, and the most powerful lessons, that a child can have.
Many of us are lucky enough to have received these things as an inheritance. I certainly am. Don and Billye Faye Watson drilled them into me with every homework assignment and every report card.
It was understood and unquestioned that my brother and I would do well in school, go to college, and take advantage of the opportunities we found there.
And my own sons know these things, too. They see and feel these empowering expectations when Liz volunteers at their schools. The confidence takes root and grows when we all do homework at night. And even the simplest moment can be a catalyst – like when Liz and Cooper and I are standing around the kitchen in the morning, drinking coffee, wolfing down a muffin, driving to school, or just talking about what opportunities and challenges the day will bring.
That’s such a small, happy, ordinary occurrence – and so powerful. It captures the generations of hopes, expectations and confidence that are coded into my boys’ DNA, just as they’re coded into mine.
Now, imagine how great Texas would be if all children shared that brave optimism. No matter what they look like. No matter where their parents are from. No matter where they live – whether in the ‘burbs or the barrios, or the gated communities or the ghettoes. No matter how much money their families have. No matter what world they know or think they know.
Imagine what would happen, and what we could become, if every last one of Texas’ children knew in their bones that they had the talents and could find the means to graduate from high school and get a college degree.
That’s the wonder of Communities in Schools. You bring those expectations and that confidence to kids who need it so badly. And in providing that, you do so much to help them succeed – in school, and in everything else.
Your work is vital – not because you’re taking the place of a parent. No organization or agency can, or even should, aspire to that.
What you do, though, is reinforce the lessons that parents, teachers, family members, mentors and so many others are morally obligated to convey.
This means more than the money you give. It means more, even, than the hours you spend with these kids.
It means so much – more, I’ll bet, than most of you can imagine – because you’re giving yourselves. You’re instilling confidence. You’re helping to build a person.
If it’s true that it takes a village to raise a child – and I deeply believe it is – then that village, or community, needs people like you, and groups like Communities in Schools. There’s no way to place a value on what you mean to these children, these schools, and this region. And there’s no question that Texas is richer for your work.
Of course, you can’t be that village alone. Neither can parents – even the most devoted ones. There are roles we all must play.
Texas’ founders knew that lesson. For them, the state had a solemn and sacred duty to provide the basic infrastructure – the schools, teachers and administrators – that children needed to get an education.
In Texas’ Declaration of Independence – amid a long list of grievances revolving mostly around an unjust justice system – there’s this outrage against the state: “It has failed to establish any public system of education, although possessed of almost boundless resources . . . and although it is an axiom in political science that unless a people are educated and enlightened, it is idle to expect the continuance of civil liberty, or the capacity for self government.”
This emphasis on education – and the state’s role in providing it – carried through statehood, Civil War and Reconstruction. Our founders’ commitment led them to set aside land – the most valuable of our natural resources back then – for the education system. They dedicated tax money for it.
And in 1876, they wrote 47 words that have bedeviled politicians for at least two decades.
“A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”
That’s Article 7, Section 1 of our Constitution. More than that, it’s a blood oath. Whatever happens – no matter how hard times get, no matter what other demands there are on our budget, and even if we have to raise additional money – we will, we must, invest in our kids, and in our future.
And in the end, it’s a commitment to the parents and students who make up this village that the state will provide the infrastructure and the foundation for a good education.
Well, I think a lot of folks in here would agree that our infrastructure is beginning to fray a little bit.
Our state ranks near the bottom in K-through-12 funding per student. Texas already leads the nation in the percentage of adults without a high-school diploma, and the problem is only getting worse
If the current state budget hits its mark – if it meets its goals – the graduation rate will drop again in 2010 and 2011.
Our budget – our most moral of documents and the one place in all of government where our leaders have no choice but to be honest about what they think is important – our budget declares in black-and-white that we can expect a 16 percent dropout rate, each year of this biennium.
Now, frankly, many believe that’s an exceptionally optimistic forecast. But even it’s dead-on, it represents more than 45,000 kids. Per year.
That means that if the state does everything it hopes to accomplish in the budget, well over 90,000 more kids – nearly the combined student populations of U.T. and A&M – will try to make it in this world without a high school diploma.
Texas has got to do better. It has got to live up to its legacy and its mission. And it must follow the example of groups such as Communities in Schools.
Last year, your group alone reached more than 5,000 students who are at risk of dropping out. And what happened? Nearly all of them completed the school year. 9 out of 10 were promoted to the next grade. And 85 percent showed improved grades, attendance, and behavior.
Five thousand kids. That’s a lot. That’s real. That’s ten Austin High graduating classes. That makes a fundamental difference to Central Texas, with an effect that spreads through families, neighborhoods, and all of our economy.
And it’s not enough. It’s not close. You all know that better than I do.
In Central Texas alone, it’s estimated that more than 100,000 students are at-risk of slipping through the system’s cracks.
That means your powerful, vital, region-changing efforts are touching just 5 percent of those who need them. For every 20 students who need Communities in Schools, only one can actually get to you.
The lesson couldn’t be clearer – you can’t do this alone. You need support. You need a partner. You need the state to follow your example, and to follow it’s own.
You need – we all need – to seek out the other 95 percent of our future. We’ve got to reach out to them. We’ve got to empower them. We’ve got to fight for them as though our future depends on their success.
Because it does.
Right now, Travis County has just over 1 million people. By 2040, that figure will stand at nearly 2 million – nearly the current population of Dallas County.
Right now, Williamson County has just over 400,000 people. In 30 years, that will have quadrupled to 1.6 million – nearly as many as in all of Central Texas this year.
And right now, there are nearly 25 million people living in Texas. That will have doubled to 50 million by 2040.
The decisions we’re making today, right now, will determine what living here – and what being a Texan – will mean to them.
Will they be the first generation of Texans in at least a century who won’t inherit the infrastructure they’ll need to grow their own economy, or prosper as their parents and grandparents – as WE – have?
Or will they be forced, by themselves, to build on Texas’ legacy? Will they alone have to provide the intellectual resources that will fuel the 21st Century economy the way natural resources powered our prosperity over the last 100 years?
Imagine, just imagine, how magnificent our economy would become if it could wring every innovation – and every revelation – out of every child who entered our schools. Imagine if every child woke up knowing that great things were expected AND achievable.
That is the gift that Communities in Schools has offered – to those kids, and to all of us – for 25 years. I pledge to you that I will do everything in my power to extend your legacy to all of our children, all of our community, all of our region, and all of Texas.
Thank you all, and God bless you.