Recently the Davis family made our first trip to Disney World with the boys.  Ty (6) and Jackson (3) enjoyed every moment of the adventure.  Peter Pan, Buzz Lightyear, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Goofy’s Barnstormer were some of their favorite attractions.  I had not been to Disney in over 20 years and seeing my children enjoy the same rides I did as a child provided some of the “magic” Disney is always promoting.

In addition to the park, the Art of Animation resort was a huge hit with the boys.  The Cars murals in the lobby, the Cozy Cone swimming pool, the painting of Mater above their bed, and the animals made of wash cloths nearly sent Ty and Jackson over the edge.  From airport pickup and check-in to helpful park staff, the customer service was outstanding.  They even found and returned Ty’s Backpack which I left on a bus.

One evening after an exhausting day in the Magic Kingdom, I was resting under a hut shaped like a large orange traffic cone by the Cozy Cone pool (Google Cozy Cone or watch Cars if you have no idea what I’m talking about) when I noticed the life guards…it’s not what you think.  It was the “off-season,” 9:00 pm at night, 60° outside, and not a soul in the pool, yet two lifeguards were on duty.  More surprising than their presence was their conduct.  They were not chatting about their boyfriends or One Direction or what they were going to do after their shift; they were actively watching an empty pool.  One guard was perched on the stand and the second was walking back and forth on the other side of the pool looking at the water and the surrounding deck. The next morning as we left the resort for another day at the park I noticed another shift of lifeguards performing the same actions.

I don’t know if it’s the Disney way or if it’s because they have more money than they know what to do with or if they’re scared of fraudulent lawsuits or if they actually care about their customers, but their vigilance for safety was impressive.  Because I have issues, and because I can’t stop relating things to the Stewart Center I sat there (under the orange cone) wondering if we exercise the same level of vigilance with regards to our children’s education.

The answer of course is no. While neglect in a swimming pool can cause sudden death by drowning, neglect of our children’s education can cause poverty, incarceration, government dependency, and despondency, among other things.  Make no mistake, whether a child drowns in a pool or experiences a life of hopeless poverty the outcome is death.  The “pool” that is public education in Atlanta is full of beautiful children flapping their arms and dog paddling in water that’s over their heads, and I can’t help but wonder –  is anyone watching the pool?

In today’s Atlanta Journal –Constitution there is an article entitled “Wide Racial Gap Persists.”  The article addresses the disparity between white and minority students in Georgia with regards to their success in Advanced Placement (AP) courses.  Only 13.3% of Georgia’s black graduates in 2013 got a passing grade on an AP exam, and only 8.6% of Hispanic graduates passed an AP course, compared to the 62.4% of white students that passed an AP course.

In response to the aforementioned data, Georgia State School Superintendent John Barge said “The ‘cure’ is for teachers from elementary school on up to focus on real rigor and to use authentic assessments in classrooms that measure problem solving, critical thinking, and strong writing skills.”  This response is partly true and predictable from someone in Barge’s position; in theory he controls the educational system so he’s going to first look at the institution for answers.

The front page of today’s paper also tells of the guilty plea entered by Millicent Few, one-time head of Atlanta Public Schools’ human resource department.  She makes the 19th person to plead guilty in the APS cheating scandal.  The institution charged with educating the next generation has robbed children’s future to cover up their past mistakes.  The current educational climate in APS makes it easy to blame educators and administrators for students’ unrealized potential, but reality says that we’re all to blame when our children fail.

For children to succeed academically they need to be supported by family and friends, they need to live in neighborhoods full of hope and potential, they need to have opportunities for learning outside of the classroom, they need activities that strengthen their bodies and spirits as well as their minds, and most importantly they need people that believe in their potential.  All these things happen during out-of-school-time (OST).

When middle class families send their children to under-performing charter schools in avoidance of the color that exists in their neighborhood school, when citizens unite to establish a homogeneous municipality in order to keep tax dollars at home, when politicians use funding for education as leverage, when school systems deny educators promised bonuses for national certifications, when Christians pull their children from public schools because they fear “the negative influence,” and when we sit by and let it happen we are implicated in the crime.

The Stewart Center is far from perfect and we do not have the ‘cure’ for what ails our education system.  As a matter of fact, the Stewart Center as an institution might be part of the problem if it were not for the people that serve children through the organization.  It is not the books, building, program or curriculum, but the people that invest in the lives of children that will ultimately help them unlock their potential.  Over the next few weeks and months this space will be filled with blogs by people that serve as lifeguards for our community’s children; some are connected to the Center and some are not, but all are devoted to Atlanta’s children.  I hope their stories inspire your thoughts and move you to action.