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MLK Speaker Geoffrey Canada Calls for Innovation in Education Reform

Old Dominion's 28th annual observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day Tuesday evening began with the presentation of the university's Hugo Owens Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award to local philanthropist Jane Batten, followed by a rousing keynote address by Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone.

Batten, the first non-African American to win the ODU award, was recognized for her long record of community involvement and service on behalf of the disadvantaged.

The program is held each year to honor King for his work in civil rights and all the changes in society that occurred as a result. It was presented in partnership with Norfolk Public Schools.

In his 20-plus years with Harlem Children's Zone Inc., Canada has become nationally recognized for his pioneering work helping children and families in Harlem and as a passionate advocate for education reform. In 1997, the organization launched the Harlem Children's Zone Project, which targets a specific geographic area in central Harlem with a comprehensive range of services. The Zone Project today covers 100 blocks and serves more than 10,000 children.

Speaking before a packed room in the North Cafeteria of Webb Center, Canada lamented the state of the American education system, which he says is failing a large percentage of children of all colors.

"You can't have an industrialized economy with a Third World workforce," he said. "That is not going to work for this country, and we have to do something about that."

He said the U.S. education system - one that has refused to change - has been a "disaster unfolding" over the past 50 years, and he called for the country to spend its money on education instead of on more jails and prisons.

Canada stressed that education reform requires accountability from everyone - from teachers and principals on down to parents. And, he drew loud applause when he declared that teachers who cannot teach should look for work elsewhere.

Speaking about the public charter schools he started in Harlem to help poverty-stricken children and their families, he said, "We have to hold ourselves totally responsible for all the kids, and every kid that doesn't graduate from college, we think that's a failure on us. … All my kids must graduate from college."

The challenge for improving the state of education in this country, Canada said, is to wake people up, and not to accept failure as an option.

"These are the kids who are going to run our country in 30 years. Either they're going to be well educated, well prepared, or as a nation we're going to be in big trouble."

Issuing a call to "fight for our children," Canada said, "What it's going to take is average Americans who love their country, who are prepared to do extraordinary things. Seventy-five to 80 percent of our kids are in real trouble and we're going to have to stand up for these kids and really do what Dr. King wanted us to do: make sure we level the playing field. We've got to do this as a community. We've got to take this seriously, because everything's at stake."

Being innovative, he believes, is the key to turning things around.

"People are so comfortable with failure that they keep trying to do what hasn't work for the last 50 years. That's just shocking," he said.

"The schools should start talking innovation - longer school day, longer school year, merit pay for teachers, holding folks accountable. But people say, 'You can't do that, all you can do is what you've been doing.' Well, what we've been doing is fail for 50 years."

Canada concluded, "Let's really try some stuff and see what happens. We can't just keep letting kids fail, so this challenge for us is being able to allow innovation, to encourage innovation until we solve these issues and we educate all of our children, and live up to the standards that Dr. King sent for us all."

This article was posted on: January 20, 2012

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