It was a question from a 10-year-old boy on a visit to a Boys and Girls Club almost 20 years ago that ignited Retired General Colin Powell’s passion for education and children.
“General, do you think you would have made it if your parents hadn’t cared if you were dead or alive?” the boy asked Powell.
To this day, it is a question he hasn’t stopped thinking about, he told a packed audience at an Askwith Forum last week. Powell responded to the question by encouraging the boy to use the resources around him, and told him that there were people that could help him. “There are people to hold your hand,” he recalled telling the boy.
“[Because of] that experience I knew I had to get more involved,” Powell said. “If we have kids [feeling] like this, it is something worth getting involved in.”
While some may find it unusual for Powell to speak on education, he said he felt certified on the topic, arguing that he ran the largest school system in America and the world – the U.S. Armed Forces. He has also raised three children, which, he said, “was harder than [leading] thousands of soldiers.”
At the base of Powell’s education work is his involvement in America’s Promise Alliance, an organization for which he was the founding chairperson and is currently chaired by his wife Alma Powell. America’s Promise, founded in 1997, is a cross-sector partnership of 400-plus national organizations representing nonprofit groups, businesses, communities, educators, and policymakers dedicated to improving the lives of children and youth.
Powell explained that the idea for America’s Promise grew out of a presidential summit on America’s future with the idea that there are five things kids need to have in life: responsible, caring adults in their lives; safe places to learn and grow; healthy starts in life; a marketable skill; and an opportunity to serve their community.
In 2010, America’s Promise Alliance launched Grad Nation, a growing movement of dedicated individuals, organizations, and communities working together to end the dropout crisis. Schools are becoming “drop out factories,” Powell said. This causes problems throughout American society on every level, including in the armed forces to which many American kids can not apply because they lack high school diplomas. The goal of Grad Nation is to raise the national high school graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020.
“Education begins the moment you are in your mom’s arms,” Powell said. Without a loving adult to help teach a child about colors, numbers, tying shoelaces, and time, children enter school without a readiness to learn, he said. “The challenge you all have as professional educators is to convince everyone in the world that it isn’t just schools [that educate], but that learning starts in early moments in life.”
When asked what it takes to inspire a child, Powell said that it’s important for adults to not just talk at children but to watch them and set good examples in life. “If a child sees love, warmth, and kindness in the family, they will identify that as good,” he said. “I guarantee that child will take that path.”