When I moved back to Pueblo in August of 2016, I came back for one reason: to have a massive impact on the community that made me the person I am today. Where others saw a lost cause, I saw an incredible amount of opportunity in my hometown. To me, Pueblo was a blank slate; a place where I was free to leave my mark.
I came back and immediately dove head first into the community. I became a Rotary 43 member, I joined the CSU-Pueblo Alumni Association Board of Directors, I joined the HARP Foundation Board of Directors, I became an ambassador for the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, and I joined the Leadership Pueblo Class of 2017. I started meeting with community leaders, educating myself on the issues we faced as a community, and searched for ways in which I could make a difference. I immediately felt a joint sense of exhaustion and inspiration. Many people I met with were on the brink of defeat; they had spent many years trying to improve Pueblo but were seeing no results. But I also spoke with many more people who were not only doing great work for our community, but were enthusiastic about the outlook of our future.
Often times, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed myself. The issues I heard ranged from poverty, gangs, violence, heroin, smoking, a struggling economy, bad schools, teenage pregnancy, the “brain drain,” obesity, homelessness, marijuana, and a lack of a new identity. In one meeting, I finally asked the question: “With all the challenges we face, where in the world do we start?” I finally got my answer. “Education.”
I smiled and breathed a sigh of relief, because I finally saw a clear path forward. All the issues that have plagued Pueblo can be traced back to education. Our local education system is failing our community. I ask you, how many of those people living in poverty have a college degree, let alone graduated high school? How many other issues would not even exist if those people had been nurtured throughout school and encouraged to go to college?
I understand that many kids in our elementary and middle schools came from tough family lives; lives of devastating poverty, drugs, and adversity. But I also understand that in one’s upbringing, the school is just as important and influential as family. Growing up, we spend just as much, if not more time at school than we do at home. It’s for that reason that schools have an incredible responsibility to shape the young people in our community.
In Pueblo, we have a huge problem of students dropping out. A significant number of students never make it from eighth grade to high school. They either hate school by that point, or they’re distracted by everything else going on in their lives. Regardless, they’re never seen in the school system again, even though it’s the school’s responsibility to make sure they are there.
Do you remember elementary school? I do. I loved it. Back then, school was a blast. Learning was fun, and I couldn’t wait to jump on the bus every morning. But at some point, typically in middle school, we lose that sense of enjoyment. When I lost my sense of enjoyment, my parents told me I had no choice; I was going to graduate high school with a gold cord, and I was going to go to college. For other students at my school, their families simply didn’t care what they did, and they in turn didn’t show up to school ever again.
Education must be a priority for every member of this community, and we must demand change in our school system. Instead of implementing a one size fits all approach in our schools, we must focus on the individual. Every kid loves something. Whether it’s outer space, dinosaurs, sports, music, animals, science, or math, we must strive to find a kid’s passion and then encourage them to pursue it. We must give them a reason to come to school. If they come from a tough family life, we must get them involved in clubs, activities, support groups, and mentor programs. Teachers must truly care about their students and have a passion for teaching, but they also must feel that they are valued by the institution they serve. That must be the role of the school system in our community.
I gave a presentation on “How to Be Successful” to 80 fifth graders a few months ago, and I was reminded of how precious young minds are. Those kids were so open, so honest, so enthusiastic, and looked at me with their eyes wide open, full of hope and excitement for the future. If taken care of properly by their school, every one of those kids had the potential to have an impact on this world.
Let me be clear; this post is not directed at the teachers of our schools. I know how hard they work and how much they care. It’s Pueblo’s education system as a whole and the leadership that needs a change. We need fresh ideas, we need new people leading the way, and we need a school system that empowers every single student all the way through high school. Education is at the core of every challenge this community faces, and I believe if we can change education, we can change Pueblo.