The following post is an extended version of “Why it’s an imperative to educate all” originally published in the St. Louis Business Journal.
Our region is known for both its private and public education.
Private schools are a significant part of our region’s educational ecosystem, and there are many terrific secular and non-secular options. Acceptance into private schools is generally selective, based on one’s ability to pay, test scores and the probability the child would thrive in the environment. I’m encouraged by the many private schools actively trying to remove barriers that prevent low-income or disadvantaged youth from gaining access to exceptional education.
Public schools educate the vast majority of children in our region; in St. Louis County alone, there are approximately 270 public schools serving more than 142,000 students compared to the 249 private schools serving more than 52,000 students. Public schools have a mandate to accept any kid. As a consequence, they had to accept me. Years ago, I was considered “special,” although I am certain that language has changed today. I was deemed special because of behavioral issues that impacted my ability to learn. School was my outlet for channeling my general dissatisfaction with the world, and I know I frustrated many teachers as they tried to manage my behavior while managing a classroom.
It is imperative for us as a region to have an honest discussion about the state of education for all children, especially our most vulnerable. We have to come to grips with why it’s critical to provide young people in our region with a world-class education. Here are a few stats that stand out to me:
- There are 76 million Baby Boomers in the US, and by 2029 1 in 5 people will be over the age of 65.
- The Baby Boomer generation is disproportionately white when compared to the overall US population. Within the next four years, at least half of the under-18 population in the US will be of minority ethnic groups.
- 1 in every 5 children today lives in poverty, and nearly half live in low-income families.
- Students at St. Louis metro schools with the highest concentration of poverty and minorities are one-third less likely to pass state exams as students of higher affluence, and in these high schools students are half as likely to graduate.
- In St. Louis City’s 18 worst performing schools, 97 percent of students live in poverty.
Why do they stand out to me? When a child lives in low-income or poverty stricken communities, chances are he or she attends under-resourced public schools. Chances are he or she is dealing with chronic stress that is hard for most to comprehend. Chances are against them to overcome poverty. These kids who represent the workers of the future are losing ground every day because of inadequate preparation in school and life.
For most of my career, I have wondered what our region needs to do to motivate more people to care about the education of all our kids. I have not yet come up with a good answer. Many don’t believe that these are in fact “our kids,” and that what happens in the city, inner ring suburbs, East St. Louis, Granite City or Lemay “doesn’t impact me if I don’t live there.”
I continue to struggle knowing that our community will invest incredible energy into education, but investments are not guided by an agreed upon plan. Without a plan, our isolated efforts can only take us so far. It’s imperative we have guiding principles around which we focus our efforts to invest, serve, influence policy and organize programs to advance our region’s children and education systems.
It would be easy to point to a few exceptions like me and believe that grit is all it takes for these kids to succeed. Grit is important but insufficient.
We need a data-informed master plan that motivates our region to advance education because it’s right, just, and moral. We must also make the case that smart education investments are good for all of us.
If we as a region don’t get education right, we all lose. Many of us will be dependent on Social Security and the labor and wages of our region’s workers. We need those workers to be educated, trained and skilled. Our region must intentionally and systematically invest in and grow our young people in order to be competitive and attract new businesses, now and in the future. It matters for all of us.
Later this fall, United Way of Greater St. Louis will host a screening of the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed.” I invite you to join us to learn more about the future of education and what we can do to help more children in our region succeed. Details are available at helpingpeople.org/screening.
Orvin Kimbrough is the president and CEO of United Way of Greater St. Louis. Follow his blog at ReimaginingOurFuture.org.