When President Obama opened Tuesday night’s State of the Union address talking about spending more time with students to boost the graduation rate, I cheered. As we heard last night, the American Dream is threatened by a lack of access to opportunity. President Obama said, "We have to prepare tomorrow’s workforce, by guaranteeing every child access to a world-class education." At Citizen Schools, we couldn’t agree more.
Co-Founder and CEO of Citizen Schools, Eric Schwarz, said that as Americans we need to “wake up to the fact that growing opportunity and achievement gaps mean that social mobility in America is now lower than it is in France, Germany, and Poland. And wake up to the fact that growing opportunity gaps hurt all of us—causing a 3 to 5 percent decline in Gross Domestic Product, according to the consulting firm McKinsey.”
What better way to close these dangerous gaps than to work with students on real-world projects that expose them to careers and allow them to get a taste of what it’s like to be a successful adult? That’s just what we see every day at Citizen Schools- middle school students working alongside professionals and college students to create business plans, launch rockets, plan cities, and more.
The President stressed the importance of supporting small business owners to increase mobility into the middle class. In Charlotte, North Carolina, a group of students had the chance to work with young entrepreneurs from Davidson College in an “apprenticeship” class called “How to Start a Business.” The students came up with the idea to create a t-shirt company that would represent the spirit of young people. They called it “Turn Up,” a phrase meaning live life to the fullest and be yourself.
The students, led by their “Citizen Teachers,” created a business plan, a logo, and a marketing plan to sell their shirts to the school community. Alyssa Pressman, a Citizen Schools teacher, said, “The students spoke confidently to parents, teachers, and volunteers about their product and they had so much pride in their t-shirts. When we were down to our last two shirts, the students started calling out, ‘Only 2 shirts left, buy them now before they are completely sold out!’’ Less than five minutes later, there were no more shirts left to sell.”
This small example is what the President’s address was all about. All students, and all Americans deserve the opportunity to pursue their dreams, and access to an education that will help them achieve those dreams. President Obama was right. When given the access to opportunity, the son of a factory worker can go to college, the son of single mother can become President of the United States, a middle school class in a low-income neighborhood in North Carolina can learn how to start a business, and all children can discover and achieve their dreams.