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Jarrad Toussant currently serves as Senior Education Advisor to Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey, where he is transforming the Newark Public Schools system through partnership with the local and national philanthropic community. Mr. Toussant previously served as Executive Director for Citizen Schools and as a Development Director for Teach for America.
Thank you to the American College of Education, the Board of Trustees, the administration, President Doran, the faculty, and the class of 2013! Thank you for giving me this opportunity to briefly address this momentous occasion for all of you who have come here today. Thank you to families, the friends, the supporters who are here to celebrate the educators and heroes in this room. Educators and heroes like you are the reason why I am standing here today.
Teachers and educators, many of whose names I can’t remember, absolutely changed the course of my life. For me, growing up in inner-city Dallas, the chance to attend a small public high school in Southwest Dallas changed my life. It was an absolutely transformative place.
It was the kind of school were you had to kick kids out of the building at night because we didn’t want to leave, where students would gather in hallways and courtyards, before school and during lunch time, to read and discuss what we were learning - the kind of place where we would pull all-nighters studying because everyone in that building was committed to your success, and you didn’t want to let them down.
I left that school with the belief that there were no limitations on what we could achieve in our lives - no matter where we were from, no matter our income, no matter our race. Yet while we excelled at school, there were still tremendous struggles at home for many of us.
My single mother worked two jobs at times to provide for me and my sister. There were days I didn't see her at all. I remember many days walking home from the bus stop (I remember it like it was yesterday) and closing my eyes as I turned the corner to my street, because I was scared that all of our belongings would be out on the street because we were so far behind on our rent.
But that school changed my life. Dedicated teachers and educators - like many of you in this room - changed my life. They created for me what was a moonshot - a place far away from the pull and gravity of my neighborhood and the statistics that say that only 4 out of 100 black and Hispanic kids who enter 9th grade in Dallas will graduate in four years with a college entrance exam. This was a place where my dreams and aspirations could be realized.
Unfortunately, today across the county, for many low-income students, graduating from college is still a moonshot - to be where I' m standing today is a moonshot. Yet, in spite of that, we know that public education can be transformative. It was for me, and it continues to be for so many others.
Right now, in Newark, New Jersey, where over a third of school age children live in poverty - three times the New Jersey average and nearly twice the national average - there is a public school, North Star Academy, which according to 2013 PISA data sits in the top 10 of schools WORLDWIDE. Kids born into stifling poverty out-achieve kids across the globe. In Arizona - a nonselective high school, BASIS Tucson North, outperformed the average of every country IN THE WORLD in reading, math, and science. Why is this important? I believe schools like these have brought us to the precipice of our next national moonshot - to provide a world-class education to every student regardless of race, income, or geography. I believe that many will point to this moment in the history of public education in our nation, to our generation, much like they pointed to the space race of the 1960s.
Fifty-three years ago, John F. Kennedy declared our nation would put a man on the moon. At the time of Kennedy's proposal, only one American had flown in space, and less than a month earlier, NASA had never even sent an astronaut into orbit. Yet in his speech to a Joint Session of Congress on May 25, 1961, Kennedy stated: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind…and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."
Landing men on the moon by the end of 1969 required the most sudden burst of technological creativity, and the largest commitment of resources ever made by any nation in peacetime. At its peak, the Apollo program employed 400,000 people and required the support of more than 20,000 industrial firms and universities. Only the construction of the Panama Canal in modern peacetime and the Manhattan Project in war were comparable in scope. However, just 9 years later, 44 years ago this month, Kennedy’s goal was achieved. On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong stepped off the Lunar Module's ladder and onto the moon's surface declaring "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
I believe no undertaking will be more expensive or more difficult to achieve than providing a world-class education to every student in our nation. And many will say we can' t do this, and many more will ask why we should.
To that, I say what JFK said in 1962:
"But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why fly the Atlantic? We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone."
Our generation has this opportunity to provide transformative world-class education to every student - not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Because it is right. And because we know it can be done. As Thomas Friedman put it, "The truth is, America has world-beating K-12 schools. We just don’t have nearly enough."
To get there, we will need your best energy and skills. We will need your willingness to accept this challenge and your unwillingness to postpone it - to create places of transformative learning - to bring us closer to the moon and to create new futures of limitless possibilities for all of us, but most importantly for those like me, who would never be standing here today without heroes like you.
Thank you again and congratulations, Class of 2013.
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