I grew up in a neighborhood where many of the men and women worked in plants and factories. Some of them completed high school while others did not. I don’t think educational attainment was high on the list of qualifications.
Because I was raised in the South, tobacco was pretty much the top product. As a young boy, I saw men and women work hard from literally sun up to sun down. Yet despite their long work hours they always had time for their families. Many of these heroes worked more than one job. For example, there were men and women that worked at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and still managed to have some type of business venture on the side. I never thought that this was strange.
This was just the way it was growing up in Winston-Salem, N.C., at the time. Our neighborhoods were segregated, so a factory worker might be living next door to a business person. Everyone took pride in their neighborhood. The houses were well-kept and the streets were clean. Even those who didn’t have two chickens in their pot always found a way to make ends meet.
There was a constant message in my neighborhood that adults gave to kids like me, and that was to get an education. This message of hope and inspiration permeated every household. It did not matter the level of education that the adults had. It did matter that they wanted us to be the best that we could be. So this meant going beyond graduating from high school. We did not have many sick days out of school because education was a priority. The vast majority of students at my high school went on to college, the military or gained employment with a training component.
Baby boomers like me started thinking about those options quite early in our lives. There are studies out that provide a lot of data about options after high school. Much of the data suggest that simply having a high school education will not provide you with the quality of life that you want to have. Students in their early years of school must know about these three options and plan on pursuing them. Career and educational counseling with students must take place sooner rather than later. As I go around and speak to young students, the conversation always turns to what do you want to be when you grow up. I have heard a lot of answers during my time.
The media have played a significant role in shaping the dreams of young men and women. For example, I have heard from a number of young boys that they want to be professional athletes. Some talk extensively about being professional football players. That is an admirable goal, but I also remind them that the NFL stands for “not for long.” It is a bit strange given the influence of women’s sports that I don’t hear more young girls talk about professional sports.
The advent of a strong community college system has provided more access to both traditional and non-traditional students. Back in the day, the traditional four-year college was about the only option. As a graduate of an HBCU, it’s my experience that these schools always had outstanding teacher education programs. So it is no surprise that many chose, at least during my day, education as a career field. The same cannot be said today. Because of community colleges, students are staying closer to home, and the lower tuition costs make them more affordable. In addition, students who attend community colleges also have full- or part-time jobs. The flexibility in course hours and offerings makes community colleges a good deal for students. Four-year colleges that are creative and innovative have already developed joint degree programs. Many community colleges have partnered with local school districts to provide high school students with the chance to take college-level courses as soon as the 11th grade.
The options for students to become successful have never been better. Students now, with a bit of industriousness and hard work, have a chance for two chickens in their kitchen pot. Those of us who work with students must encourage them to exercise their options.