University of Florida College of Education — Gainesville

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The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, on April 25, 2007 before a University of Florida College of Education audience in Gainesville.

Ladies and gentlemen, I feel privileged to be with you this evening. It is a privilege to see good people honored. One of my most deeply held beliefs is in the importance of making sure that people are honored while they are still on this earth. You serve as example to us all, and I am pleased to be in your midst. And I salute each of you.

You will not receive an “expert’s” speech tonight. But you will hear from someone who is (1) passionate about education and (2) feels passionate that there is much within us that can make a difference in other lives. There is, in fact, great power within each of us. As a lifelong journalist and as a great 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 “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? Fifty-nine 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.

God knows, we need good teachers and first-rate research so that those teachers know what works best, and we do, too. The sort of scholarship that will make a difference in people’s lives – indeed, in the future of our state and our country. You and I live in a most challenging place — the fourth largest state in the country, the 15th largest economy in the world. A place that millions of people love to visit, and millions of people love to live. A state with a marvelous blend of cultures, races, national origins, languages, faiths and different ways of looking at things. A state with a lower-than-any-other-state percentage of its population of workforce age, meaning we have extra burdens to support the needs of a population growing in size and diversity. A state of 18 million people with 220,000 more children born each year. Our future depends on those children. Ninety percent of those children, our children, will go to our public schools.

Despite some progress in our state, a full fourth of Florida’s public school students are not even minimally proficient readers. Go to high school, and 68 percent of students aren’t meeting those minimum reading-proficiency standards. No wonder that 29 percent of our state’s high school students don’t graduate on time.

There is a moral imperative here, of course, but also a very practical imperative. You want to make our state a more educated one, invest up front. That sort of investment can keep us from having to pay the almost $2 billion Florida currently spends annually on the back-end costs of re-teaching. Our state currently spends more than $700 million for supplemental academic instruction for scholastic interventions and tutoring, plus $1.2 billion more for instruction for the more than 175,000 students who must repeat a grade each year. The research tells us that if 50 students are poor readers after first grade, that 44 of them will remain less than proficient readers after fourth grade. The greatest favor we could do for public education reform in America is to deliver the children in significantly better shape to formal school than so many are now.

But let me get off my early childhood soapbox, and back up for a few moments. 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, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and, mostly, people whose names you’ve never heard. (And met the Pope and the Queen of England.) But over the years, the “business” became too much of a business, and I “retired” to take better advantage of my idealism and optimism. I needed a new perspective.

And I give you a little story to illustrate what I mean by perspective: Many of you will recall Charles Kuralt, who for years did a marvelous CBS-TV series called “On the Road.” He told this story on himself. CBS called this piece “The Remarkable Swimming Pig of San Marcos, Texas.” It was envisioned as quite the attention-grabber. To ensure that the piece was documented quite precisely, CBS even obtained a special camera to take underwater pictures of that little porker paddling along. After the program ran, Mr. Kuralt got a semi-blizzard of letters from farmers saying, “You idiot! Any pig can swim.” In Mr. Kuralt’s subsequent judgment, “It would have been helpful to have known that before we did the story.”

So what I am trying to say is this: I needed a different perspective in my own life. And my work in “school readiness” furnished just that. It is the privilege of my life, I promise you, to lead an idealistic life.

All my best work is in collaboration with others, and that is what I want to touch on tonight.

While I believe deeply in the “power of one,” I believe that it simply must be accompanied by “the power of many.” Our best work builds from a real “vision” – one central element to that being building a “movement” rather than a “program” (meaning it is about all children, not “some” children or “those” children).

In the spirit of “building a movement,” the leadership came from my community to pass “voluntary universal prekindergarten” in Florida. This very morning, 111,000 Florida 4 year olds were sitting in free-to-every-family pre-K seats. Frankly, that constitutional amendment wouldn’t 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. I would be the first to acknowledge that Florida’s quality 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.”

One more example underscoring the power of “building a movement”: Florida has a law that lets voters in counties decide if they want to raise their property taxes to provide a dedicated funding source for children. My own community tried to go that route back in 1988. Then State Attorney Janet Reno and other good people led the campaign, arguing that the community ought to help the most needy. It failed, 2-1. In 2002, it was back on the ballot. This time we made 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. We passed it, 2-1. This year we will spend more than $100 million extra dollars, administered by an independent private-public board (called The Children’s Trust), on early intervention and prevention. That costs the owner of a median-assessed-home less than a dollar a week. Those dollars mean higher-quality after-school and summer care for more than 35,000 children and a collaborative effort that is leading to “health teams” at 335 public schools, every single one, in my community.

Our success is not based on having a “children’s czar” in Miami; there is not one, and will not be one. But it is about the power to convene. It is not about “your” money or “my” money, but it is about figuring out ways good people can come together to build from a central vision and be willing to use their resources to do so. It is about getting the right people at the table — people from education and child care and the faith community and the foundation community and the health community and business people and the fullest representation generally from both the public and private sectors.

It is not about “miracles”; it is about steady progress toward measurable goals. It is about leadership, and not just management. It is about building public awareness, particularly on the part of parents for what their children really need to give them the best chance to be successful in school and in life. It is about quality because only real quality leads to real outcomes.

In Miami, those partnerships have led to significant progress: In just these past few years, we have increased the number of accredited child care facilities from 17 to 362… developed the best local early childhood website in the country, accompanied by 24-hour phone lines for parents…deliver a packet of high-quality parent skill-building information to the parents of the 32,000 children born each year…distribute more than 25,000 parent skill-building newsletters each month…use assessments with thousands of 3 and 4 year olds…and publish and distribute baby’s first book. And everything we do is in three languages.

Sometimes the words and ways of academia are a bit beyond me. But I see enough, and know enough, to witness a gradual but profound transformation here under Dean Emihovich’s leadership. “Engaged scholarship” is the academic phrase. I’d tell you it is universities and colleges bringing their quite extraordinary intellectual resources to the frontlines of schools and communities.

  • For one, good people are increasingly not putting themselves up for public service, nor encouraging and helping other good people to run for office. What a mistake. I certainly don’t want to be insensitive to anyone, but I’ve read enough and heard enough about the history of Cuba to understand that too many good people decided politics was “dirty,” and therefore didn’t get involved. The result was the likes of Machado, Batista and Castro. My point here is not about the history of Cuba, but rather of the lessons of history for all of us – and my concern that the ethos of unselfish and elected public service is being diminished in our own community and our own country.
  • Number two, we lead far too separate lives. We are certainly not a “melting pot,” nor really is anywhere else in America. At our best we could be a tasty salad. I would ask, as one test, for each of us to ask ourselves: Whom did I have in my home in the past year? We talk a “good game” of diversity yet too often remain most comfortable with people like ourselves. To overcome that – and be an example to America — we must confront ourselves.

So how does that play out in the real world? I gave you some examples a couple minutes back, but let me tell you something more about how partners can be involved. Indeed, all our work in Miami is based on partners bringing, yes, money…but much more. Expertise. Wisdom. Connecting. Stature.

Right now, we are involved with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation – and our full partner, the Lastinger Center for Learning and this College of Education – with a project to align curricula and instruction from pre-K through the third grade in 206 elementary schools in our school system, the fourth largest in America. Here’s what makes this work: (1) A university – this university — that really “gets it” and has great resources to offer – expertise, teaching, research and frontline engagement . This university’s greatest resource is, of course, people – and I salute, among others, Dr. Donald Pemberton, who leads the Lastinger Center; I could not ask for a better partner. (2) A foundation committed to real and sustainable change. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation. We love working with Greg Taylor and Tony Berkley. They understand better than most about the imperative of “ready” schools. Yes, children need to be “ready” to succeed in school and beyond; so clearly do parents, and so do communities. But schools must be “ready,” and all that builds on the early intervention research that this university and others are doing in this country. All that means, then, that (No. 3) we also must have a school superintendent who understands that helping one school is good and “nice,” but real transformation involves the whole system. Dr. Rudy Crew of Miami-Dade, for one splendid example, and so many others, including Toni Dunbar and Valtena Brown, who are with us this evening. (4) We in the leadership and in the trenches of Miami who have such a stake in success because it is our community.

There is much more I could tell you about Miami and this university – for instance, this university’s commitment to a job-embedded master’s program that we now have at nine of the most challenged Miami-Dade public schools where now there is a far better chance of training and retaining first-rate public school teachers.

But I want you to know that it also is meaningful work far beyond Miami. It is, for just one example, the Lastinger Center’s collaboration with UF’s College of Dentistry and civic and charitable leaders in Collier County that will mean an oral health program for thousands of that county’s children.

This College of Education at our mutually favorite university is a national leader in connecting with communities. Let us make sure that story is told everywhere we can. I love the Gator basketball team, and football, too, and indeed every athletic victory this university earns. But the greatness of this university will ultimately be what we give back to our state and our country. And this college of education is at the forefront of that.

My parents – my father, in particular – used to worry about the nine Lawrence children trying to “save the world.” But both of them also thought we were obliged to give to others and to set a good example. And that is what each of us can do.

You have heard this evening 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 $8 billion a month to bring democracy to Iraq can surely do better by our own children. I will never be embarrassed to have an optimistic, idealistic soul…or, for that matter, a pragmatically naïve approach to life.

Yes, our work is tough. Then again, suffrage wasn’t easy. Social Security wasn’t easy. Diminishing racial barriers, for all our progress, remains far from done. Medicare wasn’t easy. And for all those who say that we’ll never get to “universal health coverage,” I point to Massachusetts where a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature somehow figured out how to embrace everyone.

There is, I repeat as I began, such power within us to make a difference. Some of you will recall the words of the anthropologist Margaret Mead, who many years ago told us: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed,” she reminded us, “it is the only thing that ever has.”

And if that is not convincing enough, I give you the words of Karl Menninger, spoken more than a half-century ago: “What we do to children, they will do to society.” The best opportunity for a Florida where we all have a chance to succeed is the partnerships we are building with you and so many others.

Thank you. And God bless you.