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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Success Academy Benefit

May, 2019

Success Academy Charter Schools Spring Benefit

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

It truly is an honor to speak at the 2019 Success Academy Charter Schools Spring Benefit. I congratulate Success Academy on the percentage of its students who pass the New York State mathematics and English language arts exams. These outcomes should end all debate as to whether academic achievement is determined by race or socioeconomic background—rather than student scholar motivation, and the quality of teaching—rooted in the commitment and vision of teachers and school administrators.

Inasmuch as I am a public school product (K-12), I have been asked to say a bit about my own educational and career path. Indeed, although I grew up in Washington, D.C., rather than in New York City, my story sheds some light on the kind of opportunities that allow children who are not from wealthy backgrounds, from whom society expects relatively little, to make meaningful contributions to our world.

I was fortunate. I had wonderful parents, who instilled a love of learning in my siblings and me. My mother, a social worker who loved literature, taught us to read before kindergarten. 

My father, a postal worker who never had the opportunity to graduate from high school, was mathematically and mechanically gifted. He served in World War II in a segregated Army unit. During the Normandy invasion, when the rudders of the amphibious vehicles bringing the supplies (and some troops) to shore kept breaking, he was able to improvise a repair—with a special splice that he created on the spot. For that, he received a Bronze Star. His technique was taught to the U.S. Army maintenance units throughout France, for the remainder of the conflict.

My parents encouraged my early interests in science. My father helped me and my siblings to build and to race go-karts. I learned a lot about the principles of mechanics and aerodynamics from this experience, and I quickly figured out that the skill of the go-kart driver was less important than the aerodynamic design of the vehicle.

I also would capture live bees, and keep them in Mason jars under our back porch. I observed how they behaved under different conditions—such as the relative amount of light and darkness they were exposed to during daylight hours. Today, we would say that I was doing experiments in circadian biology—which refers to the chemical clocks inside our cells that respond to cycles of light and darkness during a 24-hour day. This is an important area of research, including at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, because disruptions in our circadian rhythms have many impacts on human health.

I was very fortunate to find myself at the confluence of two historical events. The first was the desegregation of the Washington, D.C., public schools in 1955, following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. This meant that I could attend a good school, in my own neighborhood, with more competition, with children from backgrounds different from mine, who introduced me to new perspectives.

Two years later, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, which occasioned a degree of panic among United States political leaders and policymakers that we might be losing the Cold War. This sparked the Space Race, which, as you know, culminated with human missions to the moon. Sputnik 1 also spurred a rigorous emphasis on mathematics and science in the public schools.

I was tested and placed in an accelerated honors track in junior high school. In high school, I had wonderful teachers—including brilliant and dedicated African American women. My accelerated program allowed me to finish the traditional college preparatory curriculum a year early, and I spent my senior year taking more advanced subjects in math, science, economics, advanced grammar and composition, and Latin (which I studied for six years). I performed at a level to become my high school valedictorian.

Interestingly enough, it was not the girls’, but the boys’ assistant principal, who suggested that I apply to MIT for college.

When I arrived at MIT in 1964, it was, as it is today, a challenging and thrilling place to receive an education. It also was rather cold on the personal front. I was one of just two African American women in my class, and the other students were sometimes quite unfriendly. I was not invited to join the study groups in my dormitory. Some students were unwilling even to sit next to me in class, or to eat at my table during meals.

When I was thinking of majoring in physics and sought the advice of a distinguished professor, his response was, “Colored girls should learn a trade.”

I was taken aback and hurt that this professor thought so little of my prospects—especially since I had the highest grades in his class.

But, I knew that there are always chances and choices. Chance had made me an African American female—a heritage I proudly embraced.

I also saw that I had a choice here: I could give in to ignorance, or persevere and pursue excellence. I chose the latter, and made physics my trade.

By the way, I did so well in his class that this professor invited me to work in his laboratory. I like to think that I taught him something—that physics is a perfectly appropriate trade for a young African American woman.

Importantly, heritage is by chance—success by choice. Heritage can be both an opportunity and an obstacle. However, from that moment in childhood or early adulthood when we learn to draw strength from our heritage—to overcome difficult circumstances—our lives become the product of our choices.

Growing up in Washington D.C., my great fortune was having the Smithsonian as an extension of my classrooms. It opened my eyes to the wonders of the natural world—and to science.

Its art and cultural resources allowed me to understand other eras, other places, other lives. It developed my empathy, imagination, and sophistication. It took a young girl—not from a wealthy background—from a segregated environment—and enriched and ennobled her life immeasurably.

In other words, education opens our eyes and our minds, gives us choices, and allows us to transcend the roles that chance has assigned us. 

The importance of Success Academy is that when windows of opportunity open, its graduates are resilient enough, confident enough, curious enough, and educated enough, to step through them, and to make up their own minds as to their paths in life.

Please allow me to tell you one other story from my time at MIT. In April of my senior year, deciding where to attend graduate school, I visited the University of Pennsylvania, which was hoping to recruit me. As I was leaving for the airport at the end of my visit, with a friend, we heard on the radio that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed. We nearly drove the car off the road.

Inspired by the courage of Dr. King, I decided to remain at MIT for graduate school—and to do what I could to open windows for the students who followed me. MIT needed to become much more welcoming to minorities, both for its own sake, and for the sake of the nation. So I helped to found the Black Students’ Union, and we presented a list of proposals to the MIT Administration.

Associate Provost Paul Gray, who later became President of MIT, listened, formed a Task Force on Educational Opportunity, and asked me to join it. The Task Force accomplished a great deal, and MIT began, for the first time, to actively recruit minority students and faculty in significant numbers.

It initiated a six-week summer program, called Project Interphase, that helped to prepare incoming minority freshmen for the rigorous coursework they would encounter. The program was open to all who needed it, and although I was still a student, I was asked to help design, and teach in, the physics curriculum.

The students I helped to bring to MIT—and helped to adjust to its culture—truly excelled. They proved that talent and success in science and engineering is not limited to one race, or gender, or story of origin. Given the centrality of MIT to science and engineering, this truly was a watershed moment. The successor of Project Interphase, Interphase Edge, still exists for all students who can benefit from its summer academic programs.

A window had opened in my life, and with an excellent education, I was prepared to step through it. Because I proved that I could simultaneously excel in theoretical physics, while helping to devise practical solutions to a multifaceted problem—I was asked to advise on other complex issues. I was given many more opportunities for leadership—in multiple domains, spawning the wonderful career I have had.

As a nation, however, we have not come as far as we should. In fields that are absolutely essential to the economy and security of the United States and our world—computer sciences, mathematics and statistics, my own field of physics—the already low percentages of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women are actually declining. In computer sciences, for example, over the last 20 years, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women has fallen from 27% to less than 19%. Similarly, the percentages of bachelor’s degrees awarded to African Americans in computer sciences, mathematics and statistics, the physical sciences, and engineering, also have declined over the last decade. An April 19, 2019, article in The Atlantic noted that, in 2017, there were many subfields within STEM in which no doctoral degrees were awarded to African Americans anywhere in the United States.

The United States has the most knowledge- and technology-intensive economy on Earth—dependent on STEM skills, and on innovation. Yet, we are not succeeding in inspiring the majority of our young people to pursue STEM careers, including, of course, women and those from underrepresented groups.

This failure is one key element of what I long have called a “Quiet Crisis.” It is quiet, because it is the kind of failure that plays itself out over a generation. But it is, indeed, a crisis.

We also have long benefited from tremendous talent from abroad to help fuel our science and technology enterprise, and the innovation ecosystem built upon it.

We are seeing a drop-off of international students and advanced scholars coming to our universities and research institutions.

This creates a threat to our global competitiveness and leadership, because other nations understand that the road to geopolitical might runs right through STEM classrooms. Other nations are vastly expanding their educational capacity in these fields. In 2000, China only awarded slightly more first university degrees in science and engineering than the United States. By 2014, it awarded nearly four times as many as we do.

The underdevelopment of our full domestic talent pool, and the now threatened continued infusion of talent from abroad, together constitute the full “Quiet Crisis.”

Our national failure to engage young women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields also exacerbates existing economic inequalities that weaken our society. Employment in STEM occupations has grown twice as fast in recent years as employment in non-STEM occupations, and 93 out of 100 STEM occupations offer compensation significantly higher than the national average.

On an existential basis, the world needs bright young people—as many as possible, from all backgrounds—to address our greatest challenges. Among these are climate change; national and global security; the mitigation of disease and improvement of human health; food, water, and energy security for a growing global population; and sustainable infrastructure and materials.

All of these challenges require new science and new technology. To take them in hand, we must inspire our children today, and to learn that which will allow them to discover and innovate tomorrow. That is why the magnificent performance of Success Academy scholars in mathematics is so important, as is the strong curriculum in science and engineering, English, and other foundational fields.

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we focus on these greatest of challenges in both research and education, recognizing that they are too complex and too intertwined to be addressed by a single person, discipline, or nation acting alone. The “polytechnic” in our name comes from the Greek for “skilled in many arts.” With a vision we term The New Polytechnic, we serve as a crossroads for collaborations among brilliant and motivated people from all disciplines, sectors, geographies, and generations, using the most advanced tools and technologies to address hard problems.  

Leadership in the 21st century requires uniting a multiplicity of perspectives and ideas. And we hope that some of the young New Yorkers currently receiving excellent preparation at Success Academy schools soon will contribute their perspectives and ideas to The New Polytechnic.

At Rensselaer, we challenge our students regularly with one question: “Why not change the world?”

To mitigate climate change; to halt emerging infectious diseases, such as Zika or Ebola; to improve the health, happiness, and security of humanity—we must affirm and support STEM education, and Success Academy! 

I leave you with two messages. To the young scholars here: If you are intellectually curious, focus on your studies, work hard, and continue to be part of this wonderful community of Success Academy, you can excel at any trade—be that as an astronaut, scientist, business leader, the Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or the President of the United States.

To Dr. Eva Moskowitz, the Board of Success Academy Charter Schools, the staff, and most importantly, the teachers of Success Academy: Keep changing the world by proving that children from all backgrounds, irrespective of zip code, can achieve great things—if someone opens the window for them, and encourages and educates them to step through it.

Indeed, everyone who supports this endeavor is changing the world. I thank all of you for that.