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Give each student a chance

Editor’s note: This article was submitted by Nate Easley, president of the Denver Public Schools board of education.

Education is a deeply personal issue. We have all been students. For me, education has been a barrier I needed to overcome, and education formed the core of my career, including service leading the Denver school board.

Last month, I joined a small group of educators meeting with President Obama at Lincoln High School. In the days before I thought on the similarities and differences in our educational paths.

Both President Obama and I were raised by single mothers. We both grew up in families with modest means, both children of color in diverse communities. We both attended public elementary and middle schools.

Then, our paths diverged. After moving to Hawaii, President Obama received a scholarship to attend a private, college-preparatory high school. He went on to prestigious institutions: Occidental College, Columbia University and Harvard Law School.

Soon after President Obama left high school in Hawaii, I entered Montbello High School, where far more students dropped out than went to college. I became a teenage parent, and, at times, my future was uncertain. But I persevered, graduated near the top of my class and was accepted into Colorado State University.

At CSU, I was shocked at how poorly I was prepared. I finished near the top of my class at Montbello, yet in college I needed remediation. It took years of effort to correct this deficit. My shock gradually turned to anger – I had been held up as a model, on a path to success. Adults expected so little of my peers and me that our most modest achievements were considered extraordinary.

As I prepared to meet the president on that September day, I found myself newly angry, keenly aware of how many kids can still fall victim to the fate of low expectations. In Denver, for too few students are graduating on time, and of those who do graduate, far too many of them are facing remedial classes upon entering college. Last year Montbello graduated just 59 percent of the students who started there four years earlier. Twenty-eight years have passed since I was a student in Denver and far too little has changed.

The president and I are examples of how education can change the trajectory of personal circumstances – and of how the quality of that education matters. We took different routes to our destinations; however I stand squarely with President Obama in our belief of what we need next.

First, we must provide families with school choice. We must continue to strengthen our existing schools and create new high-quality options of every school type – traditional, innovation, charter and magnet – and let parents choose what is right for their kids.

Second, we must improve the way we develop, support and differentiate our teachers. With the passage of SB 10-191, we have started the long and slow process of building on and rewarding the strengths of our best teachers, as well as identifying and supporting those who aren’t serving their students well enough.

Third, we must use different enrollment strategies to create quality options for all children, especially those in our most troubled neighborhoods. Education must be limited only by our children’s imagination and dedication and not by their street address.

Before I met President Obama, I watched the crowd of students anticipating his speech. I looked out into a dynamic wave of excited, upturned faces. I was once one of them. President Obama was once one of them. We have all been students.

We have all had our faces raised with hope, trusting that the education we receive will be equal to the challenges we will face. We whisper to all our children that they too can grow up to be president. But I can say firsthand that our public education system too often crushes the best hopes of our children before they ever have the chance to take root.

The truth is we need more people to be outraged by what is happening every day in our schools. We need collective anger about our children’s future – before they grow older and turn angry with us, trapped in a present for which they are not prepared, with no hope for a brighter future.

The education reform policies in Denver and across our country are critical to moving us forward. They are not all easy. Not all of them will work the first time, and some may take years to reap the benefits. But it is essential that we try new approaches.

Each student deserves not just a whispered promise that he or she can be president but also the educational opportunities that make this future possible. We have all been students, and we need to give each and every student a chance to be any one of us. It’s personal, and it’s the best thing we can do for our kids.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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