Miami-Dade Public Schools student services conference — Miami

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The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, on February 1, 2008 before a Miami-Dade Schools student services conference in Miami.

Thank you. It is a privilege to speak before such a powerful audience. “Powerful” might not be a word some of you would use about yourselves, but I insist on the word because I so admire the difference you make in the futures of the children.

Within each of us exists great power — to do good, or to do not so good. That power means little unless we feel it within ourselves, then use it – assertively, prudently, wisely. Those who think they have the power to make a difference most certainly can. Or, in the words of Henry Ford: “If you think you can do a thing, or think you cannot do a thing, you’re right.” It is up, then, to each of us. Each one of us, in quite individual ways, is a leader…and from leaders much is asked.

As a lifelong journalist and as a reader of history and biographies, I know that the best stories in human history are about those individuals who made a difference in the lives of others. But let me not use so-called “famous” people to make the point. Rather, I ask you, each of you, cannot you remember the best teachers in your life? Can not everyone? Almost 60 years ago I was in first grade at Sandy Creek Central School in the snowbelt of upstate New York. Mrs. Soule was my teacher. Beyond members of my own family, I can remember no one else – no one – from that time. Mrs. Soule made that much difference in my life.

In that spirit, I was struck by an ad in The New York Times some while back, its two headlines being these: “You remember your first grade teacher’s name. Who will remember yours?” I am in a room full of people who will be remembered by so many long past your working days, even your lifetime. So I salute all of you here this morning.

You have someone before you who comes from a family of educators; indeed, all six of my sisters became teachers. In some ways, I am an “educator” myself, especially focused on helping people to understand that if we only were wise enough to invest in children’s futures — first in the early childhood years where the “return on investment” is greatest — we would save so many dollars that we would not need to spend on police and prosecution and prison and remediation. You and I live in a state where we spend $2 billion each year in remedial education. You and I live in a state where 62,866 fourth graders on the most recent FCAT could not read on minimally proficient levels. Now, I surely do know that when most people think of public education, their mental images turn first to children, then quickly to teachers and principals and superintendents. But you – guidance counselors, social workers, trust counselors, psychologists and health providers – are educators, too.

Moreover, when most people think of what goes on in school, what comes first to mind might be reading and writing and mathematics and history and the sciences. And, yes, all that does go on in schools. So, too, as you know so well, do bullying and violence, poor health, hunger, fear, peer pressure, cultural challenges – and all of these frequently in the frame of dysfunctional families. Truth to tell, schools could not really “educate” if we didn’t have you. It is you who help young people get the necessary services. It is you who help young people acquire the skills to cope with all the pressures. It is you who help students learn how to be safe, secure and successful.

You deserve this community’s deep appreciation and respect. I would wish for you every possible reward on this earth. God knows, children and students need you. We need you.

You and I work and live in a special but not easy place – in many ways, this country’s most diverse community and on the “cutting edge” of America. If good things happen here, good things should be able to happen anywhere. A place with a marvelous blend of cultures, races, national origins, languages, faiths and different ways of looking at things. 2.4 million people, making us larger than 16 states in the Union, with 32,000 children born every year. Our future depends on those children. And 90 percent of America’s children go to public schools.

I love this community, though I promise you it is the most stressful place I’ve ever lived. If you don’t have a appetite for the “great American adventure,” you ought not live here. We live in the least boring, most interesting place in America. There is no “typical” Miamian. That person does not exist. But you can meet two types of people, among many: One, those people who reach out in wonder and excitement at the opportunities here…who are not offended by being around so many people who are different, and indeed, welcome that and welcome them, and, two, a diminishing number who live in seemingly daily sufferance about all the change here. Life is too short to make yourself miserable. Those, however, who come here with an adventurous spirit will find that most anything is possible, and such great good can be done. It is in that spirit that a great many people these past few years have rallied around children, all children. For example, we in Miami have increased the number of accredited child care sites from 17 to 348, meaning certified evidence of a stimulating learning environment for children… developed the best local early childhood website in the country, plus 24-hour phone lines for parents…deliver high-quality parent skill-building information plus babies’ first book to the parents of every child born each year…distribute more than 25,000 parent skill-building newsletters each month…have a special emphasis on children with special needs and how to identify, and help, them early…use assessments with thousands of 3 and 4 year olds. And all we do is in three languages.

There is, to be sure, no reason to rest…but there is great momentum to build upon.

But maybe I ought to back up for a bit and give you a fuller sense of where I am coming from this morning.

You have before you someone who loved journalism so much that I never missed a day of work in 35 years at seven newspapers. (That is, I do acknowledge, the mark of a significantly driven, obsessive-compulsive human being!) I was someone who loved journalism for its ability to reveal wrongs, to build understanding, to make a difference in people’s lives, to give people enough information so they could decide for themselves. Someone who interviewed Bill Clinton, Fidel Castro, Yitzhak Rabin, Lech Walesa, and met Pope John Paul II and the Queen of England, too! I loved coming to work for what the new day might bring.

Not every day turned out to be pleasurable, of course. By way of illustration, I give you a reader from Broward. Nicholas Burczyk wrote me at The Herald for years, always sending a copy to Pope John Paul II. Mr. Burczyk’s central theme was this: “Holy Father, why do you tolerate the likes of Dave Lawrence running a newspaper.” So it was in my final holiday season at The Herald that Mr. Burczyk wanted the Pope to be aware of this newspaper “paganizing” South Florida. The only proper course, Mr. Burczyk advised the Pope, would be to excommunicate me from the Holy Roman Church. Now my style is that if you write me, you will get a response. From me Mr. Burcyzk received a brief letter, the entire text of which I share with you:

“Dear Mr. Burczyk: Someone under the influence of Satan has signed your name to a letter. You may want to get in touch with the police. This man is spewing and spreading hatred. God bless you.” And, yes, I sent a copy, of course, to the archbishop and the Pope!

But it wasn’t Mr. Burczyk who drove me to do something else. I was simply looking for ways to take better advantage of my idealism and optimism. I’m like you. I need to do something that makes a difference in people’s lives. That is at the heart of your professions and at the heart of what today is all about.

All my best work – first in journalism, now in children’s issues — is in collaboration with others. That is true for you, too. You surely never have enough resources to do everything you think needs doing. And you never will. But if you and I are wise, and smart, we can figure out how to collaborate with others, taking advantage of extra resources to bring to genuinely vital work. And if we will work in the spirit of “building a movement,” we will accomplish even more. A movement for everyone’s child is basic American fairness. Most people – good people, so well intentioned – focus on one corner of the community, or another. Then the rest of the community says, “Oh, I understand it is about those children.” But, in fact, building a “movement” – rather than a “program” – is about everyone’s child. The poor need more help, of course, but the way to help them the most is to help everyone. The American dream embraces all children because all children need all the basics. This is not “socialism.” This is not the forerunner to a “nanny state.” This is not one-size-fits-all thinking. This is simply plain old-fashioned decency and fairness – the same sort of thinking that led to public schools in the first place.

That sort of thinking undergirded how “voluntary universal prekindergarten” came to be in Florida. This year, 126,000 of our state’s 4 year olds are sitting in free-to-every-family pre-K seats. That constitutional amendment would never have passed if we targeted only some certain children, however needy. But when the people of Florida saw it was about fairness and the future for everyone’s family, they passed it overwhelmingly. The quality of Florida’s program remains a work in progress, but I surely love to have embedded the right of every parent of a 4 year old in Florida to have, in the words of the constitutional amendment, “a high-quality prekindergarten experience delivered according to professionally accepted standards.” It was passed, let me emphasize again, because we focused on all children. The same principles of health and education and nurturing that apply to my five children are the same that apply to all children.

I give you one more example underscoring the power of “building a movement”: There is a law in Florida, going back a quarter-century, that law lets voters in counties decide if they want to raise their property taxes to provide a dedicated funding source for children. Good people sought to achieve just that back in 1988 in what was then called Dade County. The then state attorney, Janet Reno, and School Board member Janet McAliley and other good people pushed hard to pass this, arguing that the community ought to help the most needy. It failed, 2-1. In 2002, we put it back on the ballot, this time making the case that this would be about everyone’s child, while certainly acknowledging and understanding the obvious: That is, certain children and families do need more help, and ought to get that help. We passed it, 2-1. This year we will spend more than $100 million, administered by an independent private-public board (known as The Children’s Trust), on early intervention and prevention. And what does all this cost the people of Miami-Dade? The owner of a median-assessed-value home pays just a tad more than a dollar a week.

And so much of our work – indeed, in so many ways, just about all of our work – fits so closely with what you are trying to do.

A half-dozen examples:

  • The Children’s Trust this year will spend $11 million for health teams in public schools – work done in full partnership with the school system and the health department. Only two school years ago, there were just 19 nurses and 24 health clinics in the then 335 public schools. (And all this in a time of burgeoning asthma, autism, obesity, social-emotional-behavioral challenges, and much more.) Already we have a hundred public schools with health teams consisting of a health aide, a nurse or nurse practitioner, and someone with a master’s in social work. This August, we will add 50 more teams. We already can see the difference this makes; already, more than 50,000 students have been seen by members of the health teams this year for one sort of challenge or another. That means, most times, they stayed in school; that means, most importantly, that more children made progress in their education.
  • The Children’s Trust is spending $3.25 million this year on a major collaboration to reduce violence in violence-plagued neighborhoods in our community.
  • The Children’s Trust is investing $6 million this year toward a “family coaches” program that offers high-quality wisdom and help for all first-time and teenage mothers. We know from the considerable longitudinal research that this will lead to more successful children and mothers.
  • The Children’s Trust will spend more than $40 million this year for higher-quality after-school and summer programs that reach more than 40,000 children.
  • The Children’s Trust will spend more than $5 million this year in parent skill-building programs.
  • And earlier this week, with more than 600 child care providers in attendance, The Children’s Trust launched a $12 million investment in incentives for higher-quality child care.

All these fit closely into your own missions. Indeed, I would say that just about everything we do at The Children’s Trust – maybe even everything – supports your work.

I told you before that I was an optimistic soul, a glass-half-full guy, and I don’t want to pour out any of that water. But I need to level with you, too.

We could lose it all – every single one of the programs I mention, every single Trust dollar we invest – if the reauthorization vote this Aug. 26 is defeated. I am not giving you a “political” speech this morning, but I do feel obligated to tell you how important this election is. If we succeed, then The Children’s Trust – like its counterparts in Broward and Palm Beach – will be in perpetuity. If it fails, there will be a dramatic drop in what we can offer the future of the children of our community. And I would cry, I promise you.

It is a primary election, a recipe for perhaps just 15 percent of voters to come out. But which 15 percent? It is a primary election without a gubernatorial or U.S. Senate primary to draw out more voters as is true many other years. We have a challenge, my friends.

So let us, each of us, resolve to do our part to make sure that we continue to have the opportunity to help all children be successful. The very future of our community depends on this – and, to be quite specific, on each of us.

You have heard this morning not some far-out progressive, but rather an old-fashioned-values man, who believes what I recall from eighth grade civics – that is, our country truly has the potential to live up to its great promise to embrace all Americans and, most especially, all children. Pardon this next reference because I do not want to be interpreted in any way as “political.” (I am a fully registered independent.) But a country that can spend $275 million a day – yes, every single day — to bring democracy to Iraq can surely do better by our own children.

There is, I repeat as I began, such power within us to make a difference. If my message focuses too much on the moral and the spiritual – and I do not think it does – let us remember what Karl Menninger, said more than a half-century ago: “What we do to children, they will do to society.”

The best opportunity for a community where we all have a chance to succeed will be in the partnerships we build. Three-quarters of a century ago, the then President of these United States, Herbert Hoover, told us: “If we could have but one generation of properly born, trained, educated and healthy children, a thousand other problems of government would vanish. We would assure ourselves of healthier minds, in more vigorous bodies, to direct the energies of our nation to yet greater heights of achievement.”

That is the opportunity before us, my friends. You are making a difference, and you and we are doing it together. That makes me optimistic for the future.

Now, believe me, I have barely touched on what we are doing – together – in Miami on behalf of children. Moreover, believe me, I know how far we have to go. But should we succeed, just imagine the difference we can make for the children of Miami – and, indeed, for the very future of everyone in our community.

I want to close with a different sort of quotation, but one I think speaks to the sort of people gathered here this morning, and perhaps reflects my own musings about mortality. Many years ago, the great social reformer George Bernard Shaw wrote: “This is the true joy in life: Being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, and being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live, it is a privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die; for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it to future generations.”

I told you earlier, and I remind us again, that the most meaningful stories – even if those stories are not widely known – are of people who made a difference. People like you.

Thank you. May God bless you and your great work always.