Let's tend to black Americans' future, too

Posted: February 24, 2012

As we focus on black history this month, we must remember that reflecting on the past is insufficient. We must also look forward, dedicating ourselves to a better future for African Americans.

We succeed in America when hard work meets opportunity. And it all starts when we decide whether we are going to ensure that every American has access to a high-quality education that will open the door to opportunity.

That sounds daunting, because right now, we have too many kids languishing in failing schools in low-income neighborhoods. Just 15 percent of our schools are responsible for 50 percent of our dropouts. And these schools are concentrated in our poorest communities - the communities that could benefit most from the transformative power of a good education.

If they're given the opportunity, though, these kids can succeed. I know; I've seen it happen.

I work with the Harlem Village Academies, a group of public charter schools in Harlem. The schools have taken students performing in the bottom 20 percent of their peer group in math and, through the dedication and discipline of teachers, students, and parents, helped them become some of the city's top performers in just three years. If we can do that in Harlem, we can do it anywhere in America.

As President Obama has said, education is the great civil rights issue of our time. When the president took office, he made education a national priority. He's pushed for changes and investments to improve the nation's schools and put an outstanding education within reach for every American.

Through his Race to the Top program, he has encouraged states to improve schools, spurring innovation and higher standards, with the goal of boosting graduation rates and college enrollment, and holding adults in the system accountable for student achievement. Millions are now benefiting from reforms adopted in 46 states.

In addition, by investing in Head Start, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided an additional 61,000 children with educational, health, and social support. The administration also helped 9.4 million students and their families afford college tuition with tax credits. And it doubled the size of Pell Grants, making college accessible to hundreds of thousands of students - especially African Americans, who are more likely to receive Pell Grants than any other group.

Just as our economic and educational crises weren't created overnight, these victories didn't happen overnight. They happened only with leadership and the hard work of millions who made that leadership possible.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told us that "human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable." The same is true of graduation and success. We have to work for it - all of us.

President Obama and I believe we succeed when hard work pays off, responsibility is rewarded, and everybody has a fair shot. We can ensure that every American has an opportunity to shine. It will require leadership, but it will also require our persistence as citizens. We have the power to build a better future. Let's get to work, because we're all greater together.

John Legend is a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.

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