May 22, 2008

'Mind the Gap,' Lehman tells top graduates

The Downtown Racine Rotary Club on Wednesday honored the top students from this year's graduating class -- the top-ranked female and male from each of Racine's high schools. Each of these kids named the college they are going to, and the degree they are tackling next: biophysics, pre-med, language, law, you name it. Well known schools, important careers; an impressive group of young ambassadors from Racine.

State Sen. John Lehman, chairman of the Senate's Education Committee and a high school teacher before he entered the Legislature 11 years ago, congratulated these soon-to-be graduates, and gave them the following advice, which we thought worth reprinting here:

I picture the students we are honoring today waiting at a station, standing on a solid, well-built platform. Surrounded by family, friends, a whole community of well-wishers. They are about to board a shiny express, The Future Unlimited. Headed with confidence into an unknown future. (I’m thinking train platform, I guess, because we have been focusing so much on trying to get the KRM train to connect us with Milwaukee and Chicago.. We could think of these successful students on their launch pad as well. )

We have built the platform on which these young people stand today. We in Racine have invested about $10,000 a year in these students over the last 12 to 13 years. In total, it amounts to about a million dollars for the formal schooling of each group of eight students soon to be crossing the stage at graduation ceremonies throughout our community. What a great investment we have made; we have gotten a full return on our investment in these young people! They have done everything we have asked of them and more. These high-ranking scholars have proven themselves very hard-working and consistently mature beyond their years. We are just so very proud of them.

And we should be proud. We in this community have been solidly behind them. We have provided the educational platform as strong as the departure area …at, say, the Sturtevant Amtrak or (hopefully again some day)… State Street depot. Their bags are carefully packed with all the skills and knowledge they take from high school; they are ready to go.

But as I look out over this room and see success personified in these wonderful young people I can not resist the temptation of a person who has already taken at least part of the journey these kids face, leaving Racine for college as I did 45 years ago now.

As you step from the train platform into the Silver Express of Life…I must offer one piece of advice: MIND THE GAP. You know, that little gap between the platform and the train.

It is so easy to overlook when you are successful and forward-looking. But, as you move into the future, MIND THE GAP.

For in truth all the high schoolers, all of our society is not as successful as you.

As you move forward in life, don’t forget to look down. MIND THE GAP.

You started high school if you went to Case, Park or Horlick with about 600 students. About 400 are making it on time. Of those, about 200 are like yourselves, just like the 1950’s “Beaver Cleaver” generation, doing everything we asked, taking advantage of every opportunity, now ready for the future, very proficient by world standards even.

You have generally spent your young life with your successful friends, but there is a gap.

Certainly, some of America and some of your age group is on the other side of the gap.

“…by age five children living in poverty lag behind their peers in cognitive skills including reading readiness, numbers skill, problem solving, creativity and memory.” (WI Council on Children and Families, Inc, 2008)

Senator John Edwards called it our “Two Americas.”

Years ago Michael Harrington dubbed it “The Other America.”

I am talking about the biggest domestic public policy challenge we have now and the biggest challenge ahead in your lifetime. I won’t suggest to you where you go or what you do with your life’s journey…I can only offer some simple advice, MIND THE GAP.

Hispanic school drop out rates are almost twice and Black dropout rates are more than twice the White rates.

Wisconsin Black poverty is four times White. That’s the biggest gap in the nation, tied with Maine and Iowa.

About 95% of White students graduate, about two-thirds of Black. There is a shameful gap.

Black male incarceration rates are 10 times White, rates of poverty for children 6 times.

Coming out of school, about two thirds of Whites are proficient or better on standard tests. It’s a little over one-third for Hispanic and less than one third for Blacks.

Much of this Black-White-Hispanic gap can be attributed, of course not to race, color or ethnicity, but to the main culprit, poverty, and a “culture of poverty.”

So, as you board the train to the future, MIND THE GAP.

Join folks who believe, in the words of St. Matthew, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto me.” I say this translates into something like, wherever you go, find a way to live in, and for, your whole community, not just in a cocoon.

You have two choices, whatever career you choose. You can be the guy or gal who heads to Wall Street with a focus only on career, wealth and success. You can make a bundle.

Or you can go to Wall Street (or wherever) and remember the likes of Andrew Carnegie, Bill and Melinda Gates, the Johnson’s here in Racine who tried to MEND the gap. Remember as you go the wonderful, giving folks in Racine who have stood behind you, like the Rotarians volunteering at your post-prom….for over 50 years….with the safety of others in mind.

You are very talented. Give back. MIND THE GAP.

Wherever you go, get yourself a good education---pack your bags, the future is arriving, jump aboard, MIND THE GAP, and, with all the school success you have already had, we know you will have a wonderful journey.

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