The need to end the achievement gap is now at an "urgent hour."
Having said so, Donna Brazile - educator, political activist and commentator, and among the country's first Head Start participants as a young girl in Louisiana - spelled out ways for people to begin fixing problems that cause the gap. Speaking to a capacity crowd at NYSUT's "Every Child Counts" symposium, she said people need to press the government for more funding, involve the business community, bring successful people from the neighborhood into schools and make connections.
Here's how such a connection might work. Brazile, who received a standing ovation for her keynote speech at Thursday night's opening session, said someone from a high school near her home in Washington, D.C., asked her for help. The school was out of computers. Brazile remembered someone with whom she had once worked now works for Bill Gates' Microsoft; she called him up and relayed the request. The giant company has a program for schools. Her former colleague had a co-worker who needed to meet the mayor, whom Brazile knows. A connection was made.
"If we're going to lead the world, we need to call upon the business community to help our schools," she said. "We cannot close the achievement gap by relying on government alone."
She also urged teachers to "go to where the parents are" and encourage them to turn off the television for an hour each evening and read to their children. Some of her eight siblings still live in Louisiana and suffered losses from Hurricane Katrina. Some of them must work several jobs now, she said, but they still find time to come home for an hour and read to the children.
Those invested in ending the gap must also reach out to labor leaders, politicians and create more partnerships.
"We need to bring more people to the table," she said. "Schools alone cannot inoculate students against poverty."
Poverty affects learning, which in turn affects futures. It affects people, families, their health and the economy. Brazile said the cost of dropouts each academic year is $169 million in lost tax revenue, increased Medicaid costs and increased prison costs.
"The dropout rates we're seeing make the case for the country itself to wake up to this challenge," said Brazile, who is the author of Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics.
With fury and disappointment, she pointed out, however, that President Bush has already threatened to veto a budget request for an additional $11 billion for health, human services, labor and education. Brazile said Bush called the request "irresponsible."
"What's $11 billion when we're spending $10 billion a month in Iraq?" she asked. "My friends - that is an investment in our nation's future."
Brazile said she was profoundly impacted by teachers in her early life; from the Head Start teachers who gave the kids crayons, coloring books and pads, to her elementary teachers who loaned her books to bring home each night and then asked her about them the next day.
"They never looked down at my brothers or sisters or all the kids in the neighborhood. When I skipped along in my polka dots and stripes, no one told me they didn't match," she said.
Looking out at a room where many seats were filled by teachers, she said: "You taught me I could overcome anything. You erased all those self-doubts."
In her neighborhood, Brazile said, there was violence and families put out in the streets when they could not afford to pay their rent.
She said despite the efforts of the best educators, school is where disparities among students often first come to light. "I grew up at the intersection of race and poverty," Brazile said. "I didn't know just how poor my family was ... but the only time it hit us in the face was at school."
Today, Brazile visits an elementary school down the street from her home twice a year, inviting a host of friends, professionals and leaders along to talk to the students. She said those students used to talk about wanting to grow up to be a clerk or to work at a Burger King; now they talk about wanting to be a dentist or a scientist.
"People don't like to talk about poverty. It's time we took the shame label off poverty. It's just a condition, and we can change it," she said.
As proof, Brazile herself is the first African-American to direct a major presidential campaign (Al Gore). She also teaches at the University of Maryland and Georgetown University, and is a professor at Harvard University's Institute of Politics.
"Sometimes, you have to go beyond what they tell you that you can do," she said. "You're going to have to rattle some people, stir up some pots and find your Bill Gates."