In the Zone

The Next Chapter in the Civil Rights Movement

Brooklyn Family Court Black History Month Keynote, February 2016 (excerpts)

Education continues to be the surest way out of poverty for all Americans. Yet 60-plus years after the historic Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision, there continues to be a stubborn black-white achievement gap in our schools. The crisis we now face in our education system is the latest chapter in the story of our nation’s civil rights movement.

There are real, measurable consequences for our nation and our students when they don’t succeed in school. The poverty rate for dropouts is more than twice that of college grads. In fact, high-school dropouts make up more than 80 percent of the prison population.

The picture is even bleaker for black students across America. Last year, the percentage of black students on grade level in New York City was less than half of the percentage of white students in English. In math, the percentage of black students on grade level was about a third that of white students.

Studies show that college graduates, on the other hand, are in better health; they live longer and are more likely to have retirement savings.

While getting all of our children a college degree is tough, it is absolutely do-able. Having a young man or woman sitting in a college classroom instead of a prison cell is both a huge cost savings and a huge societal benefit.

My predecessor, Geoffrey Canada, created HCZ because he recognized that children in areas of concentrated poverty typically faced many different obstacles to reaching their full potential.

Thanks to his vision, today we have a seamless pipeline of support services, working with more than 12,500 children from birth through college. Though our primary focus is education, we also address the health, social and emotional needs of our children.

HCZ emphasizes that education must begin years before a child enters kindergarten and should extend beyond the walls of classroom.

Across our organization, more than 90 percent of all high-school students are accepted to at least one college, which is great, but we continue to support them even after they leave high school.

We’ve learned the hard lesson that getting kids into college is not the time to declare victory. The retention rate for college students is way too low.

That’s why we created the College Success Office (CSO). We work hard to maintain contact with our kids so we can help them as they hit the inevitable bumps of the new world of college.

We also make sure that each child has a connection to a caring adult. These connections we build over the years can be lifesavers when teenagers find themselves in a crisis and need to hear from someone they trust.

The big question for our nation as we write the next chapter in our history is: “Can we love all these kids?” Not just the successful ones, but all of them. Not just the ones in our family or on our block, but all of them. Not just the ones that look like us, but all of them.

I think we can do it.

As we begin to think of all of America’s children as our children, the stubborn grip of poverty will loosen and our country will be lifted by the power of these children rising upward.