Knoxville Area Urban League


Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Sitting around the table with Bill Gates

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011 | Education, Latest News | 2 Comments

You may have noticed that it’s been a while since I last wrote a blog entry. I assure you that my absence from the blogosphere has nothing to do with lack of material. The past month has been a blur of activity, and I’ve been involved in some very interesting things.

At the end of July, I attended the annual National Urban League Conference in Boston. The conference is always a great opportunity to network with colleagues from across the country, get new ideas and be energized, motivated and revived for the mission of the Urban League. I always come back from conference ready to conquer the world.

But, as you may have guessed from the title of my blog, that wasn’t the most exciting thing I’ve participated in of late. During the conference, I had the unbelievable opportunity to spend private time with Bill Gates. Yes, that Bill Gates!

Along with my colleagues from Urban League affiliates from Tennessee and Pennsylvania, 10 of us sat around the table with Bill Gates to talk about education in our states and what we’re doing to bring “Equity and Excellence” to our communities.

Equity and Excellence is an initiative funded by Gates designed to build more effective and impactful advocates for education reform. Remember my blog about attending a conference in Washington, DC aimed at reversing the dropout crisis and closing the achievement gap in minority communities? That conference was part of Equity and Excellence.

When I tell people about my meeting with Bill Gates, two questions generally come up:

1. How did Tennessee get selected?

2. What was it like meeting Bill Gates?

First, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation chose Tennessee because our state has demonstrated a willingness to engage in education reform in a significant way as Tennessee was one of the first states selected for Race to the Top. Their Foundation wasn’t looking for states making minor tweaks; they wanted states willing to “change the course of the ocean liner.” Tennessee has demonstrated the political will to make vast institutional changes in how we educate our children. Over time, we should see how those changes help move our state up from its lowly position near the bottom in state-by-state education rankings.

As to the second question, meeting Bill Gates was even better than I had hoped. Bill Gates was friendly, humble and engaged. He paid specific interest to each person at the table. When talking with me, he knew the size of Knox County’s student body, its minority population, and the achievement gap of minority students.  He had been well briefed.

Shortly after the conference, Bill Gates sent a letter thanking me for meeting with him. In the letter, he says: “Melinda and I believe education is a civil right; that all students – regardless of race, ethnicity, or where they were born – deserve an education that prepares them for success in the college or career of their choice. The foundation looks forward to continuing this important work, and we are grateful for the National Urban League’s support.”

I’m a firm believer that education reform and academic achievement are about much more than what happens in the classroom. At the Urban League, we have programs in place to engage students of all ages in out of school learning opportunities that we believe will help them perform better in the classroom, make them more likely to go to college, and in the process help our school district meet its performance goals.

There’s a place for everyone to contribute to the education of our children. If you’re trying to find your place, I invite you to join us here at the Urban League.

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Brown v. Board: Is our nation’s education system equal?

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011 | Education | 1 Comment

A word from Phyllis Nichols, Knoxville Area Urban League President and CEO

I recently attended a conference in Washington, DC aimed at reversing the dropout crisis and closing the achievement gap in minority communities. People from throughout the country were there – Hispanic, African American, Asian, Pacific Islanders and Native American. It was an amazing and informative conference that invigorated my enthusiasm for education, shed new light on the common struggle minorities share in the educational arena, and heightened my sense of urgency to do something about the problem.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 established that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Nearly 60 years later, our nation still struggles to carry out the legacy of that decision and ensure that all students receive an equal education.

As I listened to my colleagues across the table, I learned that there is still much work to be done. It was eye opening to see that across the spectrum we shared the common thread of a significant problem. Nationally, graduation rates for students of color and Native students hover near 50 percent, lagging up to 25 percentage points below white students.

The problem is largely attributable to the fact that those students are often concentrated in the lowest-performing high schools in the country. A recent study by the Alliance for Excellent Education revealed that students of color or Native students are six times more likely than their white peers to attend a “dropout factory,” one of the nearly 2,000 high schools that produce half the nation’s high school dropouts.

Addressing the problem is more than a moral imperative. Doing so is also an economic necessity. Students of color and Native students are quickly moving from the minority of the student population to the majority. Today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce, and the nation cannot afford to continue graduating just over half of the fastest-growing group of students. We struggle to have an adequate workforce now. Imagine what it will be like in 15 to 20 years if we don’t take action to stem the tide.

So, where do we start? It’s like eating an elephant. One bite at a time. We may not be able to reach the entire country, but we can impact our own communities.

Among our many educational endeavors, the Urban League is part of the Equity and Excellence Project, an initiative designed to build more effective and impactful advocates for educational improvement. One of our partners, the Educational Testing Service, emphasizes: “The family is America’s smallest school.” We share the belief that family is a child’s first teacher. Children do better in school when they depart a stable home where parents are employed, read to them every day and ensure they attend school. Sadly, many families are struggling, and their struggles contribute to the achievement gap separating low income and minority students from their more affluent peers. Education reformers have focused on what happens inside the classroom, but the impact of family means that school reform alone cannot eliminate the achievement gap.

The Urban League is committed to working with parents and students to ensure their academic success. We hope that you will join us in our endeavors.

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Got Shoes?

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011 | Education, Volunteers | 2 Comments

A word from Phyllis Nichols, Knoxville Area Urban League President and CEO

For most of us, we’ve never had to think about having decent shoes or school supplies. No big deal. They were simply there. But for kids who don’t have them, it’s a big deal!

Last week, I talked about my love of reading and how important it is that parents read to their kids. Research shows that reading aloud to children – especially from birth through age five – plays a key role in a child’s emerging literacy and preparation for success in school.

While I’m guessing that no Education Association or Literacy Foundation has researched the importance of a new pair of shoes to success in school, here at the Urban League we do a little “research” of our own every August with our Shoes for School event.

Shoes for School, a mammoth undertaking that gets bigger each year, provides new shoes and school supplies to about 1,000 area kids who are most in need. It’s a carnival-like atmosphere that includes about 35 booth sponsors and hundreds of volunteers who provide games, food and school supplies to the kids. The crowning prize of the day is a new box of shoes ordered especially for each child. I’ll never tire of seeing the look of delight on the kids’ faces when they tear into their box and retrieve their prized pair of shoes.

Why are shoes important? If you have to ask, you’ve never sat at a desk with your feet tucked far beneath your seat so that no one would notice your worn-out, paltry, little shoes.

A few years ago we got a call from a mother whose son had lost his shoes at the event. She said the poor kid hadn’t stopped crying since he realized his shoes were gone. Fortunately, we found the shoes. The surprising thing about this story isn’t that a boy lost his shoes and he was sad about it. It’s that the “boy” was 11 or 12-years old, not six or seven like we expected. Like I said, new shoes are a big deal.

I realize we’re not changing the world by giving kids in need new shoes and school supplies, but I like to think we’re making a small change in our part of the world. By arming these kids with shoes and school supplies, we’re helping them feel more confident and comfortable with their peers, which is a critical piece of the puzzle.

We’re in the process of signing up corporate booth sponsors, and we still have room for a few more. Participation includes setting up a booth or a tent, providing an activity, a game or something to engage the kids, and giving away school supplies as their reward. This is an excellent opportunity to get your employees/associates/members working on a one-day community service project. Let me know if you’d like more details.

We also need your financial support. Through a special corporate partnership, we’re able to purchase shoes for the amazingly low price of $10 each. Every $10 you donate means another happy child will start the school year “on the right foot.”

Take a quick look at last year’s video for more details.

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