Reflections from a 5th grade graduation

Reflections from a 5th grade graduation

It’s sentimental, and yet deeply true: for me, there is no better celebration of American democracy than a 5th grade public school graduation, rooted in the idea that every single student has the potential to achieve their goals, and the right to get a real opportunity to try.

If we want a democratic society – inspired by the ideals of equality, of opportunity, of fairness, of creativity, of stewardship for future generations, of commitment to the common good – a good starting place is to celebrate and recommit to what can happen in our public schools.

While I’m moved by these events every year, and have recently been lucky to attend several, this year was special, as my daughter Rosa graduated from 5th grade at PS 107 (where we have been parents for the past 11 school years) on Friday. Meg and I are deeply grateful for what PS 107 has meant in the lives of our family – to the teachers, administrators, PE teacher & track coach, custodian, school crossing guards, PTA leaders, and the list goes on. NYC public schools are part of the bedrock of our lives. For us, PS 107 has been like a family.

Here’s what families know, that designers of high-stakes tests never will: that every single one of these kids has unique gifts and talents, some of them hidden deep inside. Some of them are great at math and reading tests. Others are great at singing or dancing or telling jokes. Some of their imaginations (often dismissed as day-dreaming) produce ideas that will light up the movie-screen someday. Some make incredible things with their hands, and they’ll design new products or open delicious restaurants. Some are already geniuses at taking care of other people, and they’ll be nurses and doctors and counselors and teachers. Some are great at leading and organizing people, and committed to public service. The best schools help all our kids become their best selves.

Unfortunately, our public schools are also deeply segregated and unequal, and it is up to us to do something about it.

That’s why I’m so pleased that the NYC budget we will pass tonight (I’ll write more about it then) includes funding to make sure that over the next several years, every 4-year-old will have a quality pre-K education, and every middle-school student will have access to after-school enrichment. Studies have consistently shown that these are some of the most effective things we can do to give every kid a real chance.

I hope we’ll also face up to the segregation that continues to plague our schools. Earlier this month, in partnership with Council Member Carlos Menchaca and the Community Education Council of District 15, my office hosted a Town Hall Meeting on School Segregation and Diversity. It was a powerful meeting, that raised many questions, and pointed the way to a few answers. Read more about it here, and learn how you can get involved. In preparation for the forum, we prepared some new data on demographics, diversity, and segregation in District 15 schools, which I also hope you’ll take a look at (you can view it here).

Graduations are joyous times, but also anxious ones, as students get set to transition to new schools and challenges. As I told the students at PS 107, I think the middle-school and high-school admissions process in NYC might be what inspired Susan Collins to write The Hunger Games or Veronica Roth to write Divergent, the current dystopian fiction series that young people are reading these days.

It’s an anxious time in our world as well, with climate change threatening their future, so much violence in neighborhoods near and far, and gaping inequality.

But I believe that the spirit that exudes from a 5th grade graduation (especially at those schools where many of the families are immigrants) – full of hope and possibility, affirming what’s possible when we act together on democratic principles – points the way forward.

When our 5th grade graduates look around, they’ll see parents and kids standing up for safer streets, where fewer people are killed by cars or by guns (and this week, they can celebrate the great victory of Families for Safe Streets and others, winning a reduction of NYC’s speed limit to 25 MPH, which will save hundreds of lives in the years to come). They’ll see workers in fast food restaurants and car-washes, tired of being cheated for poverty wages, pushing for a fair wage. When they head back to school in September, they’ll see hundreds of thousands gather in NYC to push us to stop destroying our atmosphere, so there’s still enough air for them and their kids to breathe (and in the hopes that the Atlantic won’t reach 5th Avenue).

When our graduates head to middle-school in the fall, I hope they’ll build on those acts of courage. To make their first new middle-school friend. Put their first piece of art-work on display, or step out onto a stage in a school play. Stand up for a friend who’s different in the face of bullying. Organize their first fundraiser or political protest. To find meaning by taking action together, even when they’re not sure it will make much difference.

I’m pretty sure it will.