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SXSWedu, Grad Nation Summit and Washington, D.C.

Jim and General Colin PowellBy Jim Nelson, Executive Director, AVID Center

In the last few weeks, I have been fortunate to attend two very interesting conferences.  The first was SXSWedu, and the second was the Grad Nation Summit offered by America’s Promise Alliance.  AVID is proud to have been an active participant in both conferences.

Many of you are familiar with the music/film/interactive conference known as South by Southwest.  It started as a small music event in Austin, Texas, about 25 years ago.  It has grown to one of the largest and most impressive events for those genres.  This year, over 200,000 visitors flocked to a myriad of events in downtown Austin.  In 2011, an education component was introduced during the week before the rest of the festival.  It was named SXSWedu and provides a gathering place for educators, educational entrepreneurs, policy makers, and opinion makers to find common interest.  The 2012 version attracted some 2,000 people, included keynotes by Secretary Duncan and other luminaries, and gave AVID an avenue to present a session on our AVID College Readiness System (ACRS), from elementary to postsecondary.  Evie Hiatt facilitated a conversation among Miceal Kelly from California, Dr. David Watts from University of Texas of the Permian Basin and me.  We also unveiled a new video that describes our work as a college readiness system using student and educator voices.  Finally, we had a “meet up” in conjunction with the College Board that allowed a large audience to visit with us in a very casual environment.  I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, met new friends (many of whom are working on exciting projects), and came away convinced we are in the right place at the right time.

This week, I participated as a Trustee in the America’s Promise Alliance conference entitled Grad Nation Summit.  This is the second year of the Summit.  America’s Promise Alliance began 15 years ago at a gathering of the five living Presidents.  General Colin Powell and his wife Alma have led the Alliance since that time.  Its focus is on youth, communities, education, and most recently, graduation rates.  There are some 400 partner associations and companies.  AVID Center joined the Alliance about three years ago, and I’m proud to serve on their Advisory Board of Trustees.  The Summit combines general sessions that bring together panels of experts on a variety of education topics and concurrent sessions that focus on particular strands of topics. 

Jim and Jonathan Grant BrownFor example, one such topic related to the transition from K-12 to higher education.  Our own Jonathan Grant Brown, who now works at UTPB supporting AVID in Odessa, TX, was on a panel at one of the sessions.  He did a superb job.  Many of you have heard his story of growing up in as an angry young man in the foster care system in Texas.  He attributes his turnaround to an AVID educator as he entered his freshman year in high school and to the program as it helped him become an educated citizen.  He now is a college graduate, working on his master's, and continues to impact audiences everywhere he speaks.  This was no exception.  All the other panelists had fancy PowerPoints, but his voice, without the need for technology, rang across the room holding the crowd of several hundred absolutely silent until he finished.  They then burst into applause and he was mobbed at the conclusion.  I felt like a proud parent.

The focus of the Grad Nation campaign is to raise the nation’s high school graduation rate to 90% by 2020.  A report was issued at the conference by the Alliance for Excellent Education that showed an increase in the last few years, but not at a pace that makes the goal reachable.  Much of the conversation was about how we as a nation, as communities, as corporations and nonprofits, as schools, and as citizens can change that.  I am also pleased to report that everyone seems to understand that it’s not enough to just graduate from high school, especially if standards are lowered.  Young people must leave high school prepared to enter some kind of postsecondary experience.  Obviously, we believe being ready for college gives young people the most options, and that is the consensus of views expressed at the Summit.  I would urge you to read more about the Summit on either the America’s Promise Alliance website or the site for the Alliance for Excellent Education.  The latter will give you access to the report issued at the Summit, entitled “Building a Grad Nation.”

Arlington Memorial CemeteryFinally, I was fortunate to have my wife with me in D.C. during the weekend before the Summit began on Sunday evening.  We spent all day Saturday and most of Sunday being tourists in our nation’s capital.  We have been there many times and always enjoy walking the Mall, visiting the museums and getting a little much needed exercise.  Saturday was a picture postcard day with blue skies and mild temperatures.  The cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin were in full bloom.  We walked through the World War II Memorial and gazed in either direction at the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. 

Martin Luther King Jr. MemorialWe stopped at the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.  It is an impressive and thought-provoking place.  We walked through the FDR Memorial remembering our fathers who served during that turbulent time and ended on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial looking across the Basin to the Washington Monument and White House beyond.  Since it was St. Patrick’s Day, we thought it appropriate to spend a little time in an Irish pub.  Kelly’s Irish Times near Union Station was the perfect spot (though President Obama made an appearance next door at the Dubliner while we were there - we wondered why there was a cover charge when we walked by there).

Pentagon MemorialSunday we toured for the first time the new memorial at the Pentagon.  With over 180 benches remembering those lost at that site on 9/11, it is a place for quiet reflection and prayer.  We concluded with a visit to Arlington Cemetery.  We’ve been there many times, but I never tire of walking through those hills, seeing the thousands of headstones, remembering the sacrifices of so many.  To stand at the Kennedy gravesite and gaze back down the broad avenue with the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol in view always reminds me of how fortunate we are to live in this country and the great responsibility we all have to those who come after us.  The memorials remind us of real people, many of whom sacrificed their lives for our freedom, and of the great debt we owe them.  At AVID or wherever you are, we must find ways to work together to solve the seemingly intransient problems that face us in education and life.  Those who came before us deserve nothing less, and those who come in the future should demand it.

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