Remarks for Senator Barack Obama
Garfield High School
Los Angeles, California
October 20, 2007
The other day, I was reading the paper and came across an article about failing schools here in Los Angeles. The article told the story of Martha Sanchez, a mother of three, who's frustrated with L.A.'s schools. She said that when her son Gonzalo started falling behind in the seventh grade, he never got the support he needed. When she called the school to complain, nothing changed.
"Maybe the system is not designed for people like us," she said.
Not designed for people like us.
It saddens us to hear her say that. And yet, we all know why she would feel that way. Because from East L.A. to West Chicago to the South Bronx, students like Gonzalo have been getting left behind for a long time now. We see it in schools where teachers don't have the resources they need, where the classrooms are crumbling or overcrowded, or where phone calls from concerned parents are met with silence on the other end.
And our neglect of these students is being reflected in a rising dropout rate. I don't have to tell you how serious this problem is. In this school district, the dropout rate is 25 percent, and even higher for Latinos. This points to a larger trend. Because Latinos are dropping out of school more than any other group of Americans.
We all know what the consequences are. Without a high school diploma, it's harder to get a job - and if you do find a job, it's less likely it will pay well. The average salary for a high school dropout is just $25,000 a year. And dropouts are also less likely to have health care, aggravating a problem that's already severe among Latinos.
But a high dropout rate is not simply a Hispanic problem - it's an American problem. The Latino community is the fastest growing in the country and plays a huge role in our economy. So unless we make sure Latino students stay in school and get the skills they need to meet the challenges of the global economy, our workforce is simply not going to be as competitive in the world. It's that simple.
Now, I think part of the reason we've let the problem get to this point is that we tend to view students at inner-city schools as someone else's rather than our own. We say things like "these kids can't learn" and "these kids are too far behind." So the first thing we need to do is to start treating "these kids" like "our kids." And that means making sure we have an education system that's working for students like Gonzalo. Because no American should feel like their education system isn't designed for them.
That's why when I'm President, we'll give our kids everything they need to have a fighting chance. Let's not pass a law called No Child Left Behind and then leave the money behind. Let's rebuild our crumbling schools, recruit an army of new teachers and get more of them to come teach right here in East L.A. - because what makes the most difference in any child's education is the person standing at the front of the classroom.
And we also have to make sure that every child who wants to learn English has the resources to learn English. And that any child who comes here and studies here and does well in school has the same chance to attend a public college as anyone else. This is what the DREAM Act does.
The other week, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the DREAM Act for the second time. That was wrong. Instead of driving thousands of children who were on the right path into the shadows, we need to give those who play by the rules the opportunity to succeed. That's why I helped pass the DREAM Act when I was a state Senator in Illinois. That's why I'm fighting for it in the U.S. Senate. And that's why I'll make it the law of the land when I'm President. And while we're at it, let's pass comprehensive immigration reform, because until we do, we won't be able to focus on the other challenges facing the Latino community.
But in addition to these comprehensive reforms, we also have to take targeted steps to improve graduation rates. That means supporting college outreach programs like GEAR UP and TRIO so more students can see that a college education isn't just a faraway dream, but something they can attain. And it also means intervening much earlier in a child's education - because the downward spiral that leads a high school student to drop out often begins in elementary and middle school.
That's why I've proposed a STEP UP plan to expand summer learning opportunities through partnerships between schools and community organizations. And that's why next week, I'll be introducing a bill in the Senate that invests in proven strategies to support middle school students and that awards grants to states and districts that are improving graduation rates.
But we can't just work through the schools. We need an all-hands-on-deck approach. We need to bring together state and district leaders, foundations, entrepreneurs, and community organizations so we can solve this problem together. And that's what I'll do as President.
Now, I didn't just discover these issues on the campaign trail. I've been working with the Latino community to address these issues for over two decades. As some of you may know, I got my start in public service after college when I moved to Chicago to be a community organizer on the South Side. And one of the things I did was build a coalition between Black and Latino leaders to help set up afterschool programs. Because we knew that if we could keep kids off the streets and in school, we could improve graduation rates. And I also fought to get state funding for a dropout prevention program that's still in operation today.
And what I learned in the process is that it often takes more than academic failure for kids to give up on their education. There are usually other issues involved. Maybe it's a teen pregnancy or the demands of a job. Or maybe it's an immigration raid that snatches a child's parents away so they've got no one at home to offer them guidance and support. Or maybe it's a sense that certain students aren't expected to succeed so after a point, they just stop trying. We can't let this continue. We teach our children that in America, if you dream big and work hard, you will thrive. We have to keep that promise.
So if we're serious about addressing the problems in our urban schools, we're going to have to lift expectations and restore a sense of hope in our communities. It's time to stand and deliver for America's urban poor.
A few months ago, I outlined my plan to fight poverty in our nation's cities. It's a plan that takes a comprehensive approach, addressing poverty by addressing its root causes in the community. We'll invest in programs that offer everything from counseling for new mothers to afterschool programs to free medical services, and job counseling for parents.
And we'll create good paying jobs here at home, and invest in innovative transitional job programs so we can get the unemployed working again. It's also time we did something to bring businesses back to our inner-cities. A long time ago, we created a World Bank to spur economic development in some of the world's poorest regions. Well if we can have a World Bank than we can have an urban bank right here in America. And when I'm President we will.
So we know what we have to do. We know how to solve these problems. What we're lacking is leadership that can get it done. Leadership that can unite people of every race and religion and political party to make sure that in this country - of all countries - a life of hope and opportunity is possible for anyone who's willing to reach for it. That's the America we believe in. That's the America that led my father to come here from Kenya many years ago. And that's the America that I'm running for President to help bring about.