Pick A Message: Kill Big Bird Or Send Kids To College

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We were going to use this space to rant against those elected officials who would vote to kill off Big Bird by decimating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides funding for Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio stations, and cutting the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Oh, yes, the Trump administration also wants to eliminate 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which The New York Times says “fund after-school programs for about 1.6 million children in high-poverty areas.” That would be the children all of us in the field of youth development are here to help.

Then we saw The New York Times obituary: “Eugene Lang, Investor Who Made College Dreams a Reality, Dies at 98.” And we thought, why waste our time on people steeped in anger toward their fellow human beings, including, and maybe especially, children of color who live in poverty by no fault of their own.

Lang, as anyone of a certain age remembers, was invited to give a commencement speech in 1981 to a room full of sixth graders in Public School 121 on East 103rd Street in Manhattan. According to the obituary, as a graduate of the school, he was going to tell his mostly African-American and Hispanic audience that if they worked hard they could succeed as he had. But instead, he spontaneously changed his mind by “telling them that one of my most memorable experiences was Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and that everyone should have a dream. Then I decided to tell them I’d give a scholarship to every member of the class admitted to a four-year college.’”

He mentored students and persuaded other wealthy individuals to pledge to help kids get to college, too. The end result is the I Have a Dream Foundation, which now has 200 affiliates and claims to have helped 18,000 young people get to college — and inspired other programs to start, too.

Of course, just saying you are going to provide a sixth grader a college education is not going to persuade all kids to go to college. Other support systems have to be put into place. There is a long list of guiding principles at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which also provides scholarships to promising scholars who have financial needs. The I Have a Dream Foundation starts early in elementary school and sticks with students right through college.

However, a  few rich people are not going to solve this problem if only 9 percent of kids living in poverty find their way to college or other postsecondary learning opportunities. They can, however, be a beacon for the rest of society to follow.

Harold O. Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and a former New York City schools chancellor, praised Lang after reading the obituary, but added, “more must be done by states, the federal government and colleges to make higher education accessible to all based on academic merit rather than parental wealth.” That’s a message all elected officials need to hear — and some have.

New York state is making a push to provide free tuition to all students from families that earn less than $125,000 per year. The plan needs to have support systems beyond pure financial assistance to truly help kids in poverty, but free college tuition for students who stay in-state is a start in the right direction and could go further if we all continue to advocate for and demand nothing but the best for children in low-income families.