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Van Jones, Rosario Dawson lend star power to CGCS conference (video)




CNN commentator Van Jones and actress and activist Rosario Dawson are both products of public schools.

They brought their personal experiences and their positions of influence in media to the Council of the Great City Schools' annual fall conference on Thursday. During separate events, they addressed the current state of public education and how the political climate is impacting the children and families schools serve.

Jones and Dawson spoke on the third day of the conference, hosted this year by CMSD. Top urban education officials from across the nation came to Cleveland to share ideas and network.

Friday's highlights of the Council of the Great City Schools' fall conference

Dawson kicked off the morning by discussing her own experience growing up poor in New York City, where she experienced trauma at a young age. Her supportive mother and teachers helped her overcome her troubles, she said. Dawson described one teacher who had a profound impact on her by getting her excited about understanding math.

“It was people like him who moved me to want to be better and strive better,” she said.

Dawson pointed out that many students in urban public schools are still facing some of the same struggles.

“I know and understand how neglected so many communities are,” she said. “We have kids who are suffering because they have family members who are incarcerated; they have family members who are undocumented. There’s a lot of fear and a lot of anger and a lot of pressure.”

Dawson, in an interview after her address, said mental health should be a focal point for public schools.

“We have a whole community of activists and advocates who we’re not necessarily tapping into because we’re so overwhelmed, and the kids are not getting the mental health care they need,” she said. “But the second we give them that, they’re out there and they’re fierce.”

(CMSD's work on display at conference)

When it was Jones’ turn to speak in the afternoon, he talked about how growing up around educators shaped his career and his politics. He lifted up the important role of educators, calling them “the last bastion of sanity in America.”

“It doesn’t matter who comes through your door,” he said. “You got kids whose parents voted for Donald Trump, people whose parents voted for Hillary Clinton, who voted for Bernie Sanders, who didn’t vote or who couldn’t vote -- all sitting in the same classroom, all with their eyes bright and a future that could be great or terrible, sometimes based on a single word from a teacher.”

Jones also hosted a town hall-style forum on the role of equity in education.

A panel at the forum included CMSD CEO Eric Gordon, CMSD parent Jessica Nelson, New Tech East senior Shauntia Adams and Lincoln-West School of Global Studies sophomore Jonathan Chikuru. Also on the panel were Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Darienne Driver, Denver Public Schools Board Member Allegra Haynes and Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

Gordon emphasized the importance of equity in Cleveland, a city that he said is plagued with generational poverty and strained relationships between police and the community.

“At the core of what I do as a superintendent is making sure that my kids and my kids’ families can dream without limits and that they’re able to do whatever their dream is."

He urged the educators and administrators in attendance to use their influence to work toward the same goal in their cities.

"We in this room have an awesome responsibility because we are most primed to take on these challenges and create that space for dreaming,” Gordon said.

Shauntia was one of the crowd favorites, garnering applause and cheers for her comments, including a statement that her favorite class -- and also her toughest -- is a biochemistry class she is taking at Cuyahoga Community College.

“You know that you’re dealing with a young person in a supportive environment when their toughest subject is their favorite subject,” Jones said. “That’s something good happening in Cleveland that we don’t hear enough about.”

Shauntia also discussed the positive impact of the Student Advisory Committee, which is part of The Cleveland Plan, a reform plan written into state law. Each of the city’s high schools appoints members to the committee, and it meets quarterly with Gordon.

“I want to thank Eric Gordon, because whatever problems we have in our schools, he wants to know, and he wants to get his hands on it and make sure the kids know him,” Shauntia said.

The second student panelist, Jonathan, brought a unique perspective to the conversation as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jonathan and his family came to Cleveland less than two years ago to flee war.

Jonathan discussed some of the highlights of living in the United States, including soccer and a school community that supports his goals.

Jones prompted him to talk about the tougher parts of living in his new home. Jonathan said he often misses his family members back home whom he can’t visit.

Jones, wiping away a tear, asked Jonathan’s parents to stand up in the audience. The crowd gave them a standing ovation.

In an interview after his speech, Jones said he hoped to bring some positivity to education leaders in the hopes that they will pass it on to their students.

“I think people are being ground down by the level of divisiveness and vitriol in the country,” he said. “I was hoping I could maybe give people a little bit of hope, a little bit of encouragement, a little bit of inspiration, because if the grown people don’t have it, the kids have a hard time finding it. We have to keep our light bright.”