Sitting around the table with Bill Gates

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.