Celebrating Success

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It is a pleasure to be here today to do something which I think we do too little of in the field of education—and that is to celebrate success.

To our graduates, and to their families who have supported them on this journey, congratulations. One of the great privileges of my office is that I get to follow in the footsteps of giants. I get to meet and work with legendary leaders like President Francis. I get to learn from extraordinary educators like Dr. J.W. Carmichael. Sixteen years in a row, Dr. Carmichael has seen to it that Xavier enrolls more African-American students in medical school than any university in the nation.

So, yes, it is a pleasure to be here today. But it is a humbling honor as well. I speak at a university literally founded by a Saint, a university where Pope John Paul spoke, and at a school that has been described as the "black Notre Dame of the South."

Four years ago, after Katrina submerged Xavier under four feet of water for more than two weeks, then-Senator Obama delivered the commencement address to Xavier's first post-Katrina graduating class. He spoke with eloquence and passion about Xavier's tenacious, almost miraculous recovery from the hurricane.

Please know that today, New Orleans, and the communities of the Gulf Coast, are still very much on the mind of President Obama and of every member of his Cabinet. As the President has stated, the federal government has launched an all-hands-on-deck response to the oil spill in the Gulf from day one. Even as we hope for the best, we are preparing and planning for the worst. We will not spare any effort to respond to this crisis, as long as it lasts.

President Francis knows a thing or two about responding to a crisis–and the power of commitment. I don't know how many of you realize it, but President Francis is now the longest-serving college president in the United States. After growing up in poverty, he not only attended Xavier, he became the first African-American accepted into Loyola's law school. In 1968, when I was four years old–and long before the seniors here were born–he became the president of Xavier, at the age of 36.

Dr. Francis has worked with every president since JFK. He was a member of the commission that issued the historic 1983 education report, A Nation At Risk. When hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck, Dr. Francis served as Chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority for three years, helping to oversee the state's recovery–even as he re-built Xavier. It is no wonder that Dr. Francis has earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.

We have seated here today the first full class of seniors who enrolled as freshmen as Xavier re-opened after the hurricane. I know that this a little unorthodox in a commencement address. But we are here today to celebrate success, hard work, and commitment. Dr. Francis, could you please stand to acknowledge the appreciation of these seniors and their families for your extraordinary service?

I am struck by the fact that President Francis's career is very much in keeping with Xavier University's mission. Xavier's mission is not just to have students graduate and go on to jobs and careers–as vital as those goals are, and as much as they may be on your mind today. Xavier asks something more of its graduates. It asks that you contribute to the promotion of a more just and humane society. It asks that you take on roles of leadership and service.

I am not naïve about the challenges you face in 2010. Most of you are saddled with debt from student loans and rightly concerned about the tough job market facing new graduates. It is a challenge to think about giving back when you are worried about paying back loans.

I'm not the first commencement speaker to encourage service and lives of consequence. Four years ago at this commencement, Barack Obama said that "you can take your diploma, walk off this stage, leave this city, and go chasing after the big house and the large salary and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy. You can live in neighborhoods with people who are exactly like yourself, and send your kids to the same schools, and narrow your concerns to what's going in your own little circle."

That was one path, the President said. But there was another, harder path. The tougher path, the President said, "asks more of you. It asks that you leave here and not just pursue your own individual dreams… It asks you to realize there is more to life than being rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. It asks you to recognize that there are people out there who need you."

Let me repeat that. "There are people out there who need you." And few people need you more than the nation's children–including right here in New Orleans.

I am not asking that you be as selfless as Saint Katherine Drexler, Xavier's founder. Short of a saint, few people lead lives of perpetual selflessness. But I am asking that you think about how you can, in the course of doing your jobs and raising children, help those who need you.

There is not one way to give back. Xavier awards more undergraduate degrees to African American students in the biological/life sciences and the physical sciences than any university in the nation. Despite being busy, many doctors find a way to give back. Think of my colleague, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, a proud Xavier graduate who created, and then rebuilt, a rural health clinic in a poor, fishing community on the Gulf Coast of Alabama. In fact, she rebuilt that clinic twice–first after Hurricane Georges struck in 1998 and then again after Katrina.

Think of Alexis Herman–a sociology major at Xavier who went on to become the first African-American Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Few have done so much to advance the rights of women and minorities in the job market.

These are storied Xavier graduates– and not everyone can have the highly-publicized impact of a Regina Benjamin or Alexis Herman. But that doesn't mean you can't help those who need you.

Let me tell you my candidate for the nation's unsung heroes: Great teachers. I hope that many of you will leave here today thinking further about how you can help students as a teacher, tutor, coach, or mentor–and especially here in New Orleans.

There is a reason why so many of us remember a favorite teacher, even decades later. A great teacher can literally change the course of a student's life. They light a lifelong curiosity, stoke a hunger for learning, and teach self-discipline and grit. The teachers that you will remember years later are the ones who wanted you to solve problems like a scientist, write like a poet, see like an artist, and observe like a journalist.

Yet today, too many public schools fall far short of providing a first-rate education. Barely 60 percent of African-American and Latino high school students graduate on time. In many cities, half or more of low-income teens drop out of school–which in the information age is a one-way ticket to the unemployment line.

At the same time, we have a shortage of great teachers in the schools and communities where they are needed the most. Teacher openings in science and math—subjects that are so important to the future—are often hard to fill with effective instructors.

Xavier is uniquely suited to help fill those positions. The Xavier Math Fellows are fourth through eighth grade math teachers in New Orleans who share a commitment to eliminating the student achievement gap in math between New Orleans students and their peers within the next decade. The university's Math Science Institute provides extensive training to these math teachers–and it is a model I would like to see copied elsewhere.

Still, I think we can all agree that New Orleans, and the nation as a whole, has far too few teachers of color. Nationwide, more than 35 percent of public school students are black or Hispanic, but less than 15 percent of our teachers are black or Latino. It is especially troubling that less than two percent of our nation's teachers are African-American males. Two percent.

When I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I used to go into elementary schools that did not have a single black male teacher, though most of the students were black and grew up in single-parent families. How can that be a good thing for young children, especially boys? The under-representation of African-American men in the teaching profession is a serious problem. And it is not self-correcting. Our children need you.

As many of you know, Historically Black Colleges and Universities–including Xavier–were established a century ago for the purpose of training a generation of black teachers.

In his famous essay, "The Talented Tenth", W.E.B. DuBois wrote that it has "been in the furnishing of teachers that the Negro college has found its peculiar function. Few persons realize how vast a work, how mighty a revolution has thus been accomplished. To furnish five millions and more people with teachers of their own race and blood, in one generation, was not only a very difficult undertaking, but a very important one."

There's a reason why Booker T. Washington walked 500 miles to the Hampton Institute to get an education. There is a reason why W.E.B. DuBois said that "of all the civil rights…the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental." There is a reason, in the words of President Obama, that "the story of the civil rights movement was written in our schools."

That reason is known to everyone here today. Education is the great equalizer in America. And if you care about promoting opportunity and reducing inequality, the classroom is the place to start. Great teaching is about so much more than education; it is a daily fight for social justice.

In the next four to six years, we project that up to one million new teaching positions will be filled by new teachers, as teachers and principals from the Baby Boom generation retire. I want HBCUs–I want Xavier students–to help answer the call of the classroom.

I know it can be done. Since Katrina devastated the Xavier campus and New Orleans, more than 200 students have graduated from Xavier University with a Bachelors or Masters Degree in Education. They have begun careers as either classroom teachers or school principals. I met some yesterday at one of Marian Wright Edelman's amazing Freedom Schools, and I was inspired by their talent, passion, and commitment. I mentioned earlier Xavier's outstanding record in enrolling graduates in medical school. But that is not the whole story.

In the early 1970s, ten students or fewer from Xavier were enrolling each year in medical school—and the students who did enroll were sadly unprepared. A group of Xavier's science faculty members, led by Dr. Carmichael, decided to do something about it. In 1977, they got federal and foundation support to create intensive summer science programs to boost the skills of high school seniors in New Orleans.Nearly 35 years later, those BioStar, ChemStar, and MathStar programs have helped thousands of students build their scientific skills–many of whom went on to flourish in Xavier's pre-med and pre-pharmacy programs.

So, yes, Xavier, it can be done. You are doing it. Ask Xavier grad Byron Williams, the principal at Salmen High School in Slidell. Katrina washed away the walls of his school and a foot of mud covered his classroom floors. But he had no tolerance for people who thought his high school could not be rebuilt. He stood up and told his faculty "I need everyone on board. I need you to forget about your houses when you're here and just get the school going again." And they did.

Ask Xavier graduate Alexina Medley, the principal of Warren Easton Charter High School. The old Warren Easton High School was submerged under 10 feet of water in Katrina and closed for a year. But Ms. Medley re-opened Warren Easton as a charter school–and today the school has almost a 100 percent graduation rate.

And don't forget to ask George McKenna. He is another Xavier grad who went on to become a legendary principal in Los Angeles.

George McKenna went into one of the most notorious and violent high schools in Los Angeles and totally transformed the school with a combination of tough love, high expectations, and a gospel of non-violence. In a school where gangs once cordoned off areas for their members, where students sold drugs, and where kids assaulted teachers, George McKenna in its stead created a school where 80 percent of the students went on to college.

George McKenna is so famous that they made a movie about him. Denzel Washington played Mr. McKenna.

To the men here, I'm sorry to say—please don't expect that Denzel will be playing you anytime soon if you become a teacher. The truth is that I don't want to romanticize the job of a good teacher. Teaching is hard, hard work–and even the best teachers have heartbreaking frustrations and disappointments.

But most teachers will also tell you that the rewards of being a teacher far outstrip its disappointments. Teaching is one of the few professions that are not just a job or even an adventure—it's a calling. Great teachers strive to help every student unlock their potential and develop the habits of mind that will serve them for a lifetime. They believe that every student has a gift—even when students doubt themselves.

Henry Adams said that "a teacher affects eternity—he can never tell where his influence stops."That is a weighty responsibility. But it is also a unique privilege.

In closing, I congratulate every one of you on your wonderful accomplishment today, and for reaching this moment of passage into careers and adulthood. That is success that richly deserves to be celebrated.

There are many ways to celebrate. And I hope that in the years ahead, many of you will find ways to give back in the classroom–to remember and honor the memory of those great teachers, mentors, and coaches who once helped you.

We need you, as the President says.

We are so proud of each and every one of you. And we look forward with great anticipation to the next stage of your journey. Congratulations—and good luck!