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Philanthropy Thought Leader Uncategorized

Want a Stronger Community? Help Our Schools

By Demetrius Jordan, senior director of regional priorities at United Way of Greater Atlanta

Here we are, one year away from 20th anniversary of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. And there I was, 20 years ago, in 1995, a young, fresh-out-of-college expat teaching in Osaka, Japan. To put it in perspective, pagers were still high tech.

I remember regular calls and letters from family and friends about how Atlanta was faring in preparation to host the Olympics. And many of my new friends shared their excitement about Atlanta being the place to be.

As a Hotlanta native, I was very proud – for the most part. Yes, there were new buildings, sports venues and a host of good ole Atlanta charm on display, echoing Andy Young’s “city too busy to hate.” But as an educator at the time, sheepishly, I was all too familiar with the fact that unlike the way we would come to dominate the summer games athletically, we were not among the top academic-achieving nations competing on the world’s stage. The U.S. lagged behind many other developed countries, including Japan, South Korea, China and Canada. And Georgia was by far not at the top within the U.S.

The story is not that much different today. While we have made significant educational gains here in Georgia and across the country over the past 20 years, we are far from the proverbial finishing line. In a recent study, “Georgia came in dead last in the rigor of its reading proficiency standards in both fourth and eighth grades, and near last in math.” It makes me question whether our students will be prepared to compete in a global market.

Based on a Stanford University study, the potential impact of improving our students’ science and math scores is an estimated $41 trillion boost to the U.S. economy. But if Georgia’s education standards remain too low, we may find ourselves simply handing over any competitive advantage to those more prepared with a stronger workforce; leading tomorrow’s businesses and driving global decisions.

I am equally troubled by the dialogue online following the article about Georgia’s standards. It’s far too easy to ride the coat tail of a narrative that solely casts blame on teachers or administrators. What I found striking in Japan was a clear cultural and community-wide commitment to education. Georgia educators struggle very little with lesson plans and instructions, but are exacerbated by the drains and toxic stress many underachieving students endure outside the classroom.

I’ve heard you can tell the future of a community by how well it treats its children. That’s why one of my favorite days while living in Japan was the annual national Children’s Day Festival, where the entire community celebrated kids.We have an opportunity to do that here. Both experience and research demonstrate student achievement is impacted by what happens outside of the classroom as well as what happens within it.

Whether I’m on the football field with the coaches, in the corporate boardroom with business leaders or in the classroom with my children’s teachers, I hear that we are a concerned, committed community. So how do we change the conversation from being fixated on systems-level issues only to a dialogue about community-based solutions? We have the power to work collectively to not only voice our shared aspiration for a globally competitive standard, but also to bring our skills, knowledge, commitment and compassion together to lift up struggling schools and ensure the next 20 years casts a very different picture.

Demetrius Jordan United Way of Greater Atlanta

Demetrius Jordan is senior director, regional priorities at United Way of Greater Atlanta. He can be reached at [email protected]


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