On the borders of American education

A student reading a book

(Photo credit: Brad Doherty/AP Images for Pearson)

“I am a human being in search of the American dream.” I was a bit taken aback after reading the first line in the essay handed to me by a student at Juarez Lincoln High School in La Joya, Texas – a school that sits less than 3 miles from the Mexican border. The new American Dream was what I planned to discuss in the commencement speech at Texas Southmost College the following day, before ever having met these students. But nowhere along this 4-day road trip through Texas did I feel the importance of this theme more acutely than when I met the young students at Juarez.

Their stories all share a common thread: the drive to overcome challenges of poverty with a will to learn and as one young man very frankly put it, “be somebody.” The first student who spoke told me about leaving his parents behind at the age of 14 to come to the US. Another had ridden atop the “Death Train” from Honduras – a two-month-long journey, which, he wrote in his essay, all too many passengers did not survive. These students were among the most mature, humble and driven I have met anywhere in the world, and hearing their stories was an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. As the teachers and parents thanked me for coming to their school, I felt a sense of inadequacy…that I had brought little to the table through my visit (although I know Pearson has been a long-term partner of the school), but had gained so much from the experience. I had seen firsthand what it really means to need an education. For many of these students, and students like them around the world, an education can literally be the difference between surviving and thriving. My conversation with these students reinforced for me the urgency and importance of the purpose that 40,000 Pearson colleagues share with our partners and customers around the world. The last line of that student’s essay reminded me that there is so much yet to be done to help people achieve their goals. He writes, “I am a human being in search of the American Dream of becoming a Spanish teacher.” As I left the school, I realized why these students had been happy to talk to me – they took comfort in hearing someone from outside their world tell them directly that through education, they can realize their own personal ambitions.

I had the chance to address the graduates at Texas Southmost College the next day. I told them what they likely know better than anyone: education impacts not only the life of the student, but the lives of everyone close to them. In the photo above, little Makayla joined her father Mark on his big day, as he graduated with an associate’s degree in applied science. She was so excited, and understood that this was a happy time for her family. But what surely wasn’t clear to her at the age of 4 was that the moment would be a transformational one. His associate’s degree will mean an earnings difference in $400,000 over the course of Mark’s lifetime, and it will greatly increase Makayla’s chances of going to college and providing a comfortable future for her own children and generations to come.

Education is a powerful driver not just of personal and family growth, but also of community growth and economic prosperity. Before visiting Texas, I spent two days in DC, during which time I drove three miles from the Capitol to visit an adult charter school in Ward 7 in southeast Washington DC, one of the most destitute parts of the city. Pearson has supported the Community College Prep Academy since its inception with digital learning and tutoring support to help get students ready for college and the workplace. The charter school’s founder, Connie Spinner (pictured below), described Ward 7 as an “underdeveloped nation within a city”, one of the “last bastions of great poverty” in the nation’s capitol, and an area where internet infrastructure is nonexistent. It takes an exceptional leader like Connie to overcome these challenges and see the impact that a school like this can have upon the community. The students ranged in age from 20-50 and older, but they were learning the very basics of literacy and numeracy. (In fact, the 40 year-old man I met with was only just learning whole numbers.) In just the few years since she opened CC Prep’s doors, Connie has seen hundreds of students leave, armed with the qualifications they need to take the next step in life, and ready to give back to their own community and push forward the positive cycle of education in Ward 7.

CC Prep Visit

These stories reinforce the desperate need for access to high quality education in our poorest communities. The students at CC Prep, Juarez Lincoln High School, and Texas Southmost College, rely every day on a combination of great teaching, inspirational leaders, and world-class tools and research to make progress in their lives. Our responsibility is to provide those world-class tools and research, and what matters to my colleagues and to me is that we’re doing right by the people who most need it.