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Decades ago, a young inner-city student was given a chance to participate in a reading contest, a chance that would transform his life and set him on a life-long journey to expand educational opportunities across the country.
Last week that student, 50CAN executive vice president Derrell Bradford, followed his journey to St. Louis where he shared his story and passion for education freedom as the keynote speaker and Champion of Change award winner at CEAM’s new IDEA Gala.
“I just want to emphasize how important the right school at the right time is for every child because it absolutely was for me,” said Bradford. “I have attended all sorts of schools and only the first one, on a corner in southwest Baltimore known not because I lived there, but because a young black boy named Freddie Gray died there many years later, were schools I was zoned for.
“I went to one of the city’s best public schools in one of its richest most segregated neighborhoods before I could understand my classmate’s single families had more money than the families of all my aunts and uncles combined,” Bradford added. “This was the school that should have put me on the path to something greater, but for a shy boy from the wrong part of town it was the worst school for me and that was, indeed, my worst year in school. St. Paul’s, where I went on a scholarship, had its own imperfections but it was small and it was all boys which helped me greatly given how socially anxious I was. It was the mix, and the timing, that made it all work. And I don’t have the chance to become this version of myself without that specific schooling opportunity at that specific time.
“Fit and the moment are everything,” he said.
Bradford pointed out that many families who can not afford to move for a better school, or pay to go to a private school are left with few choices.
“Most folks who aren’t rich go the route of lying about their address to get the school that’s the right fit,” he said. “That should be unacceptable to all of us not because it’s done but because it has to be done.”
Bradford also called for a bipartisan approach to improving education in Missouri, noting that advocates on both sides of the political spectrum must work together on this key issue.
“Deciding there are people you simply cannot unite with to do right is not pragmatism, its piety,” he said. “It is its own flavor of elitism. People in trouble do not need elitism, they need change.”
Bradford was joined by a unique blend of education advocates being recognized by CEAM at the gala.
CEAM Associate Executive Director Peter Franzen presented the Great Idea Award to Julius Anthony and the St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature.
The St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature is committed to fostering awareness about the importance of early literacy by creating innovative opportunities for all kids to have access to Black children’s literature, with a focus of creating “Believe” library sites throughout the region where children can find books full of characters that look like them.
“Because third grade reading success is a the educational marker that determines a child’s progress in school and in life, and because 70% of black 3rd grade children in the metro area are not proficient in reading, and because he had a vision for changing all that, Julius brought his great idea to life,” said Franzen. “Julius believes that for black children, stories written about them and their interests are important when learning how to read because children are drawn to books that have images of people who look like them.”
CEAM also honored the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience, a rigorous four-year medical profession magnet school in the St. Louis Public Schools system, with the Innovative School Award for the school’s mission to prepare a diverse student body to further their studies at the nation’s best colleges and universities.
“Collegiate offers advanced curricula that include many honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses,” said Franzen. “The environment and culture at Collegiate is one in which all students and staff work together toward a common goal of careers in medicine, health careers, and biomedical research. The school’s unique four-year medical program provides students with project-based learning experiences under the guidance of health science and technology professionals in the classroom and with our local partners – Goldfarb School of Nursing, Washington University Medical School, Saint Louis University School of Medicine, and Saint Louis College of Pharmacy.
“We don’t need less diversity in education, we need more,” Franzen added. “We know that kids learn differently, have different interests, and have different abilities. Why would we force kids to attend any school unless it makes sense for them. To high-achieving students, Collegiate says, “come here, we have a place for you.” The expectations are high, the course work is rigorous, but if you survive, you will leave with a world-class education.”
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