Throughout American history, the nation has invested a great deal of social capital in a few key issues that underscore our most fundamental democratic principles. The specific challenges may have changed from century to century, but certain economic and cultural issues have dominated our nation's policy landscape in every era.
Public education is one of those key issues.
Did you know that the first American public school was authorized in 1643 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony — nearly 150 years before the establishment of the United States? By 1870, every state in the union provided free elementary schooling.
In the 19th century, the typical U.S. classroom was a one-room schoolhouse for students of mixed ages and abilities; some students were older than the teacher. Schoolwork consisted mainly of literacy, penmanship, arithmetic and "good manners." Often the school would be open only for a few months of the year, usually when children were not needed to work at home or on the farm.
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A community's investment in the educational system was evident in its shared efforts to maintain the community school. Farmers supplied wood for the stove in the winter, and parents built desks and took turns cleaning the stable that housed the horses children rode to and from school.
Public education today is representative of more than a century of ongoing reform. We have progressed from one-room schoolhouses dotting a primarily rural landscape to large, high-tech facilities in largely urban/suburban areas. The curriculum has expanded to include preschool and kindergarten programs and broadened content expectations that include career-technical education, physical education and wellness. There are also higher levels of math and science than have ever been offered before.
As chair of United Way of the Bluegrass' Education Impact Council, I have had the privilege of working with some of the top educators and community leaders in Central Kentucky to develop the community's agenda regarding education.
The agenda has four main goals: building a solid foundation through early learning and development, improving student achievement, engaging families in education and providing pathways to successful careers.
Perhaps the most powerful piece of the community's education agenda is the expectation for student achievement. The council firmly believes that all kids can succeed and meet high expectations. We must set higher expectations for all children. All children, regardless of background, socioeconomic level, race or ethnicity can learn well beyond what most give them credit for — and what most expect.
One great example is United Way's partnership with JPMorgan Chase Foundation, Fayette County Public Schools, Bracktown Inc. and the University of Kentucky to form the STEM Academy at the Robert G. Woodson Academy.
The program places African-American middle school students, many of whom are underperforming, in accelerated math and science studies with a focus on careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. The program has had great success in its first year.
Over the years, one thing has remained the same: the need for "people power," as measured by high levels of community support and family involvement. This ingredient is critical for the ongoing success of schools today and into the future.
Research demonstrates a strong correlation between the quality of a child's education and parental involvement. Simply put, the more involved you are with your child's school and his or her learning, the better your child will perform academically, socially and emotionally throughout school and life.
As a community, we have a vested interest in our students' academic achievement and lifelong success. Please accept my invitation to join in our efforts. You can invest in United Way's focus on education. You can volunteer to be a mentor. You can change lives.
Consider your New Year's resolution and what you can do to improve the education of your community. Your contribution is priceless, and we simply could not do it without you.