Denny Smith
Leadership and Development Trainer

The year was 1981. Eugene Lang, a “self-made” millionaire, was returning to give the commencement address at PS 121 in East Harlem, his elementary alma mater. Upon learning that three-fourths of the sixth graders would not graduate high school, he realized that his intended “work hard and you can be successful” theme wouldn’t resonate, so he completely altered his approach.

Understanding that the kids needed hope rather than another sermon, he offered to give each student admitted to a four year college upon graduation a scholarship. He also provided mentorship, tutoring, crisis counseling and social opportunities that are not normally available to kids in their financial bracket.

In his book Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty, a must read for all educators, Paul Gorski explodes so many myths and misconceptions about people caught in its hellish cycle.

He totally explodes the idea that low income parents don’t care about their kids’ education. They care as much or more than affluent parents, but they can’t attend the parent-teacher conferences because the buses don’t run at night or they’re working their second job just to put food on the table. They’re strapped by financial stresses that most of us can’t begin to imagine. They can’t fathom taking a vacation with their kids. Dinner with the family at Perkins is not even close to being financially feasible. Many can’t get their kids to and from school activities because they don’t have cars. Extra-curricular opportunities are limited at best.

Most of us wouldn’t bat an eye at leaving a $15 tip for dinner in a nice restaurant. To the family in poverty, $15 is one-third of their take home pay for a day. Most of us can’t begin to imagine the heartbreak parents feel when they can’t afford the $10 field trip for their three children.

We should all try this. Have an administrative team meeting at a venue away from school. Require that they not drive to the meeting but take the bus instead. Schedule it in the winter so all can experience the discomfort of waiting at the bus stop in ten degree weather. Some may find that they had to leave their building 20 minutes early to coordinate with the bus schedule and that they have to leave promptly at 1:00 or wait another 40 minutes to catch the next bus. We would discover first hand that poverty presents its challenges. Perhaps it will help us get out of our bubble of privilege and look at things differently; and teach us to be more understanding and less judgmental.

So what’s the solution and where do we start? It seems like an almost impossible task, but we can gain insight from Eugene Lang’s legacy.

First of all, we can realize that the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” speeches don’t resonate with people who don’t have any boots. We need to give hope, but a pep talk about hope without backing it up with funding is fluff. Let me get up on my soap box and advocate for some things that I think offer a huge return on investment.

Warren Buffet said that one of the first investments America should make is in early childhood education. If we have any hope of closing the opportunity gap, we have to give every student access to preschool, including transportation to and from their education center. I am extremely disappointed that the Governor’s proposal for Universal Pre-K was defeated. If we don’t fund early childhood education now we will suffer huge social and fiscal consequences down the road.

Imagine this. What if every elementary student knew that if she or he was academically successful, their college education would be funded. I am soap boxing again, but I firmly believe that affordable (in fact, free) college would reap an unbelievable return on investment. We have thousands of bright, intelligent and motivated young people who would flourish as post secondary students, but they can’t afford to go to college.

Look at the fiscal return on funding education for all. Our business leaders tell us that one of the biggest deterrents to economic growth is the lack of an educated workforce. Investing in college (both technical and liberal arts) would provide that workforce, grow our economy and pay us back in a heartbeat. And consider the economic status of the graduate five or ten years down the road. The difference in the tax bracket of a person making $30,00 to $50,000 instead of working in a low paying job would easily repay the investment. Instead of living in poverty, they would be buying homes and cars and going out to dinner and taking vacations, etc. The money would circulate, our local economies would thrive, and our quality of life in America would be enhanced for all of us. As Paul Wellstone reminded us, “We all do better when we all do better.”

We need to understand that much would be required of our low income students, but high expectations would be accompanied by mentoring and tutorial help to assist them in reaching those standards.

Providing educational opportunity for our low income students is not an easy task and it takes a huge commitment of time and resources. But we need to ask ourselves if the richest nation in the world has the will to do it. To re-visit a quote from the 60’s, “If you think education is costly, try ignorance.”

Denny Smith is a former teacher and coach, a motivational speaker, and author committed to making our schools and communities safe and welcoming for all people. More information is available at or by email at

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