Building on advice from Eleanor Roosevelt, NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi challenged parents, educators, policymakers and other stakeholders to "do one thing everyday that scares you."
"It may be as simple as asking a question that might make you vulnerable; or entering a dialogue from the position of what might work instead of what doesn't work," Iannuzzi suggested at the opening session of the statewide union's forum.
Through "Every Child Counts: A symposium dedicated to ending the achievement gap," NYSUT hopes to deepen the understanding of all of the issues, said Kathleen Donahue, a NYSUT vice president.
"We are here to stimulate a dialogue that many have already been trying to have in our communities for several years," Donahue said, adding that Iannuzzi has made ending the gap an organizational priority of the union.
Iannuzzi shares a moment with attendees shortly before taking the stage to deliver opening remarks.
Ask and reflect
Iannuzzi called on those assembled to use the gathering as an opportunity to "ask questions and reflect in ways that we believe will lead to actions addressed at meeting the needs of our nation, our state and, most importantly, our children."
A former fourth-grade teacher, Iannuzzi reflected on some of those children - those who surveys and research deem will be on the "safe" side of the gap and those who end up at-risk, including three of his former students: Jose, Billy and Tyneisha.
"Jose was perhaps one of the brightest boys ever to enter my fourth grade ... but health and psychological issues eventually led to a drug addiction. Billy found his place in a gang-infested neighborhood and is now in prison where he will likely spend the rest of his life," he said.
Iannuzzi remembered nine-year-old Tyneisha as the personification of young, black and gifted. "She had everything to offer and every hurdle to overcome." Tyneisha was found dead in a dumpster before her 25th birthday.
Those three students and countless others like them are grim reminders of the many factors contributing to the gap, Iannuzzi said. Income, quality health care and skin color -- "with all the discrimination it has brought" -- are a few contrasts between the haves and the have-nots. And though "no one factor has exclusive claim to the gap, poverty is certainly present most consistently."
While much time may be spent reflecting on causes of the gap, Iannuzzi implored those in attendance to take Roosevelt's advice.
"If we all continue to do one thing each day that scares us -- not because we fear the action, but rather because we can only imagine the benefits to all in society - that, in fact, may lead to ending the gap," Iannuzzi said. "If we do that, then our symposium will have been successful. And that scares me for all the right reasons."