I want to thank the Chester Valley Ministers’ Association, particularly Rev. Mae Etta Moore of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Breakfast Committee, and Ms. Leslie Raimond of the Kent County Arts Council—for your invitation to join you here this morning, to celebrate and remember the remarkable life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
How fitting that, today, our nation also marks the second-term inauguration of our first African-American President. Today, a half-century after Dr. King led the historic march on Washington, tens of thousands of Americans will gather again in Washington, and millions will watch in America and around the world, to mark this historic occasion that Dr. King had only dreamed of.
In the decades since Dr. King’s march, we have made sure and steady progress toward achieving his vision of social justice for all Americans. The Civil Rights movement began the long process of removing the educational, economic, political, and social barriers that held back many African-Americans from realizing their full God-given potential.
The past few decades have seen many African-Americans realize that potential. They have achieved distinction as artists, scientists, political figures and business leaders on the national stage – and have been publicly recognized for these achievements.
Several of these success stories started right here in Kent County. Mr. Norris Commodore, who grew up in Fairlee and earned a degree in Mathematics from Washington College, is now a senior executive with IBM and a College Trustee.
Mr. Marlon Saunders was born and raised in Big Woods by parents who encouraged his interest in music and stressed the importance of formal education. He studied at the Peabody Conservatory of Music and at the Berklee College of Music, where he now teaches voice. He has earned widespread acclaim, recording and touring with Bobby McFerrin, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Lauryn Hill and Michael Jackson, among many others.
Marlon’s sister, Ms. Monique Saunders, earned an undergraduate degree at Howard University and an MBA at UVA’s Darden Business School. Today she is Managing Director of the American Cancer Society.
Mr. Jackie Johnson, a member of the Chestertown community, studied history at Washington College and launched a military career that took him all over the world as part of the White House communications staff.
Mr. Ira Smith is another Kent County youth who was able to make the most of his education. He played professional baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers and then went on to work at Rolling Hills Country Day School in California. In 2010, he was named Educator of the Year for the Palos Verde School System. His mother, Joann Warren works at Washington College and is here today. Joann, can you please stand?
The good works of the late Reverend Vincent Hynson—a teacher, pastor and community activist who grew up in Tolchester—continue to inspire all of us.
County Commissioner Mr. William Pickrum is a graduate of the last high school class at Henry Highland Garnett School. He has a Bachelor’s degree from the U. S. Coast Guard Academy, and had a distinguished career as an officer for over 22 years. He also has a Masters degree from Chapman College and a Doctorate in Public Administration Studies from New York University.
And I’d be remiss not to mention that Ms. Sylvia Frazier’s brother, Mr. Corey Hackett, has made it big in the world of jazz and rhythm & blues, performing as a soloist throughout Europe.
The unifying thread in each of these stories is a family’s commitment to education. Education is the first step toward achieving the American dream, and the surest path out of poverty.
No one understood that better than Dr. King. In a speech he delivered in 1964 before the United Federation of Teachers, he remarked: “The walling off of Negroes from equal education is part of the historical design to submerge him in second-class status. Therefore as Negroes have struggled to be free, they have had to fight for the opportunity for a decent education….”
A decent education is still worth fighting for, because the payoff is enormous. There is a clear correlation between a person’s educational attainment and their earning power. If you drop out of high school, you can expect to earn only $17,000 a year. If you complete high school, the number jumps to almost $27,000. And if you graduate college with a bachelor’s degree, the number almost doubles, to over $52,000.
Over a lifetime, the gap in earning potential between a high-school graduate and someone with a college degree is more than $1 million.
We know that children’s attitudes about education are shaped early, in elementary and middle school. Children live up to the expectations of their family members and teachers.
The good news is that here in Maryland, our public school system is the best in the nation. But this high educational achievement is not evenly spread across the state.
The truth is that Kent County lags well behind Maryland’s other counties in reading, math and science. It is ranked among the bottom three, along with Prince George’s County and Baltimore City. And our slide begins in elementary school. In a world that grows more technologically demanding, many of our children struggle to master basic reading skills and scientific concepts.
We’re setting up our own children and our own communities for failure.
As troubling as these numbers are, they are worse for African-American children in Kent County. Beginning as early as the third grade, scores for African-American students lag behind their peers and reflect a downward trend that continues through high school. In almost every category in which we measure educational attainment, African-American students in Kent County do worse than their peers.
Dr. King knew that education was the key to lifting up our nation, giving equal opportunity to all our children. When our children fail to thrive in school, we betray the promise that Dr. King lived and died for.
So what can we do?
Today’s theme is Celebrate, Remember and Act. To truly celebrate and remember Dr. King’s legacy, we must act and we must act together. We need to raise our expectations of what Kent County’s children can achieve. We must partner with our schools and give them the community support they need.
It begins at home. Many parents and grandparents already instill strong study habits and communicate with teachers. They need to continue to help children develop a thirst for knowledge and realize their own potential.
Washington College has a role to play, too. Our Education Department places student assistants in Kent County schools each year, and many students and faculty help in other ways, including Character Counts! and the Junior Achievement Program that teaches financial literacy in the elementary and middle schools.
Washington College is also a full partner for those Kent County students who wish to pursue their education with us. This year alone, we have awarded almost a million dollars in scholarship support to 51 Kent County students.
But that is not enough. Kent County is undertaking a search for a new school superintendent. This is an important decision. So important that I am encouraging every employee of the College to meet with the consultant who is helping our local school board with this important hire. I hope you will also become involved in this process and share your hopes and concerns for our schools.
I think Kent County is a great place to live. But we are shortchanging our students. They need the very best education possible, one that will pave the way for a brighter future.
As Dr. King once remarked, “Every step toward the goal of justice … requires the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
I can think of no better way to honor the memory of Dr. King than to ask all the dedicated individuals here today to continue their tireless exertions and passionate concern for our children by helping them along the path to academic success.