A busy week in American education

Four events last week reminded me of how special this country is and how our commitment to education makes us unique in the world.

Wednesday evening I attended my synagogue’s annual Holocaust Remembrance service.  The guest speaker, Irene Weiss, turned 14 in Auschwitz.  She and an older sister – two of six siblings – survived through a combination of luck and love.  Two aunts protected her.  She made her way to America after the liberation, and lived in Virginia where eventually she became a school teacher.  Asked about why she went into education, she said she went into teaching English as a second language because she thought her understanding of foreign cultures could be helpful to kids whose first language was not English.  A more eloquent statement of how our system embraces difference could not be imagined.

Thursday we celebrated at Gelman Library the anniversary of our William Taylor Archive, and had the great pleasure of hearing Deputy Mayor De’Shawn Wright, Professor Liliana Garces, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education Art Coleman comment on the Taylor legacy and its centrality in our quest to further the ideals of improving education for all children.  Opening remarks by Vice Provost Terri Reed set the tone, and it was, again, made abundantly clear through the discussion that a uniquely great thing about American education is our joint commitment to high standards for learning and equity of access and opportunity.  We have lots of work ahead, especially in an age of ravaging inequality, but we take on that challenge upon a foundation of hope and progress.

Friday evening was the annual GW “Power and Promise” dinner, to thank the generous benefactors who have sponsored scholarships for our students.  The words of one of those students, Albert Cramer, a young man whose parents came to this country from Germany and Korea with little in their pockets but much in their hearts, were riveting.  What other higher education system in the world has invented a mechanism to invite and enable people to pursue their educational and life dreams and to make sure that personal or family wealth cannot be the sole entry ticket?  College does cost money, and problems of affordability and access cannot be pushed aside.  But watching our institution’s remarkable success in empowering students and fulfilling the promise of education gives great hope.

And then, on Saturday, I had the pleasure and honor of watching DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson receive the honorary doctorate from her undergraduate alma mater, Georgetown University.  There was characteristic pomp and solemnity on the part of the deans and president, who reminded Kaya’s assembled friends and family of the beginnings of the university in 1789 (I looked around and made the mental note that most of the people in the room, because of their color, would not have been invited to the campus back then).  The Woodrow Wilson (DCPS) High School jazz band played brilliantly.  Kaya was poised and proud, and mostly extraordinarily humble and grateful – to her family and friends and colleagues and, yes, her country. Here is a black woman of very modest means, a beneficiary of public schooling and the dedication of family, rising to the highest ranks of educational leadership and reaffirming her commitment to get up every morning “on fire” to make the world a better place for all children.

Four days of awe that made me proud of what’s been accomplished and energized to keep up our hard work.

April 23, 2012

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