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Children's Defense Fund Celebrated at Askwith Forum

Governor Deval Patrick give the opening statement at the Askwith Forum on April 10.If you ask any of the researchers, policymakers, lawyers, and educators present at yesterday’s Askwith Forum, “Leveling the Playing Field for Education,” they will tell you that pathways exist for children to succeed in life. However, many will also tell you that there are many obstacles — poverty, achievement gaps, health issues, a broken juvenile justice and immigration system — standing in the way.

For 40 years, Children’s Defense Fund Founder and President Marian Wright Edelman, one of the forum’s headline speakers, has been a powerful and driving force fighting for those children struggling on the pathways. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick was once one of those children, struggling in the south side of Chicago, but education opened his eyes to the opportunity in the world.

“We have a persistent achievement gap and the kids stuck in that gap are poor, they speak English as a second language, they have special needs. They are disproportionately black and brown children. To have an achievement gap at all is an economic and social problem. You know that. But to let that go for 20 years is a moral question,” Patrick said in his special introduction of the event. “Those are our children too — all of our children — and we owe them their best chance. We have work to do.”

During the forum, the editors and authors of the Harvard Education Press book, Improving the Odds for America’s Children, reflected on many of the issues facing our children, not only in early childhood education but well into adolescence and beyond. The book, dedicated to Edelman and commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Children’s Defense Fund, examines critical issues — prenatal and infant health and development, early child care and education, school reform, the achievement gap, vulnerable children, juvenile justice, and child poverty — and highlights crucial practical and policy measures we need to consider and implement to better serve children in America.

Panelists noted that poverty is at the crux of nearly every issue facing children in America, noting that today one in every three children is living in poverty. Jerry Weast, founder and CEO of Partnership for Deliberate Excellence, noted that “it’s harder to get out of poverty than it has ever been.”

“Early education cannot do its job when a parent is in poverty,” said Arloc Sherman, senior researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

As Reverend J. Bryan Hehir, who moderated the discussion, pointed out, it is often easy to talk about what the country needs, but, he asked what do we need to do moving forward?

Panelists mentioned various important changes that needed to be made such as a juvenile justice system reform, access and support for early childhood education, comprehensive support services for parents that includes job training, a professional teaching structure, high schools that build pathways beyond just a four-year college degree, and educational supports for children living with undocumented immigrant parents.

“We’ve known what to do for a long time,” said Smith College President Kathleen McCartney, former HGSE dean. “What we need in this country is a cultural intervention.”

Senior Lecturer Deborah Jewell-Sherman — like many of the forum’s speakers — advocated for a “whole child” approach where all service providers are housed within schools. “Schools cannot do it all,” she said, emphasizing the need for all services to be built into the pathway.

Congressman George Miller, who joined the forum via video, stressed that a lot of work has been done but now is not the time to give up. “The solutions are within our grasp,” he said. “Now, it’s a matter of resources.”