Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Gerard Robinson: An Environment for Children where Opportunities Abound

Gerard Robinson

Gerard Robinson, Executive Director, Center for
Advancing Opportunity, writes:

Any discussion about society, poverty or class is 
incomplete without education as a fundamental marker. 
Today’s debates over violence, budgets, jobs, and 
national security are hollow without recognizing that 
absent a quality education, no American has a chance 
to impact these issues, or benefit from policies designed 
to solve the most pernicious issues of the day.

I know. Growing up in Los Angeles were three avenues 
one could follow toward the future: violence, 
academics, and sports. Although my parents 
wanted the academic path, I had other plans. Sports 
was going to give me the life I wanted for myself 
- athletic scholarships that would pay for my college 
education and provide opportunities for me to 
become a professional athlete bringing the literal 
fame and fortune that I desperately wanted.

Then I got hurt my senior year of high school. And like 
so many of us, my best laid plans were 
interrupted. The opportunities I wanted were 
suddenly gone. Because I was focused on sports 
and not academics in school, I was stuck. My 
indifference to school and learning, no real knowledge, 
skills or proficiencies of any type, all proposed the 
 proverbial question of “Now what?”

For me, the answer was El Camino Community 
College in Torrance, California. I worked as a box boy at 
Ralph’s Grocery Store and started classes at El Camino 
where I promptly failed the math and English placement 
exams. (One could argue I should never have 
graduated high school in such a condition… many of us 
still do).  It was a struggle. I was academically far 
behind many classmates. In essence, I was doing high 
school as a college student.

So there I was - a statistic. A black man in college 
but not prepared at all for the academic rigor higher 
education presents us. I watched my peers not struggle 
through freshman year. I watched them participate 
in class discussions with background knowledge that I 
didn’t even know existed. The knowledge gap was real.

But El Camino offered me exactly the opportunities I 
needed to improve myself at exactly the time I needed 
them. California’s community colleges happen to 
have been strong at that time. The grit I 
developed by persevering and the remedial 
coursework allowed me to get my Associate of Arts 
degree in three years. Without that, I would not have 
had the opportunity to move to Washington, DC 
to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Howard 
University. And without my BA from Howard, I would 
not have had the chance to earn a Master of 
Education from Harvard.

I do not offer this up as an “If-I can-do-it-anybody-
can” Horatio Alger tale – although if it serves that 
purpose, too, fine with me. I offer it, more importantly, 
to point out that so much in life, and virtually 
everything in education – from young children in 
elementary school through adults in need of new skills 
training – comes down to opportunities; opportunities 
they need to access a high-quality education.

For elementary and secondary school students, 
that means ensuring quality learning opportunities 
within and outside of our traditional schools and school 
districts. Magnet schools, dual enrollment programs, 
and career and technical learning centers in the 
case of the former; charter schools and scholarships 
for private schools latter. The beauty of charters is that 
they offer opportunities for learning to many students 
placed at-risk that are often desperately needed and do 
not exist in some traditional public school districts. 
Perhaps access to a charter school would have 
ensured I mastered the learning I needed in high 
school and accelerated my course. I was lucky. Millions 
more are not. The parental choice ecosystem -- 
scholarship tax credits, education savings accounts, 
and virtual learning opportunities -- all must be on the 
table to ensure that all educational opportunities are 
available families that need them most.

I believe we must also ensure greater access to new 
kinds of educational pathways which ensure new 
skills and training, apprenticeship and workforce 
programs, both publicly and privately funded. 
There are community colleges that offer the kind of 
accessible, affordable learning that opens innumerable 
doors to future success. We must ensure that the 
great ones thrive, and insist that those that fail to 
deliver on solid outcomes improve. The same is true 
for all post-secondary institutions.

That is why I am focused today on faculty and 
students at Historically Black Colleges and 
Universities (HBCUs) by supporting the research, 
 scholarships, campus conversations, data, and 
convening thought leaders, activists and students 
at an annual summit. As such, we have successfully 
invested in and launched three research centers -- 
one each at Winston-Salem State University, 
Texas Southern University, and Albany State 
University -- to develop research-based solutions 
to the most challenging issues in education, criminal 
justice, and entrepreneurship. We believe our 
constituency is people living in fragile communities 
and they are members of all races, ethnicities, and 
 religions. Our work is part of creating an 
environment where quality education is available 
and accessible from preschool through 
 post-secondary institutions, where opportunities 
abound, so that every student can achieve their 

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