Why Dan Stephens Gives


DanThere are 21 school systems in our 5-county area, serving about 160,000 students.  These school systems serve a wide variety of neighborhoods and student populations.  Some of them serve as many as 35,000 students, others serve no more than 1,500 students.  Some of these systems cover rural areas, others are primarily suburban or urban, and some systems include elements of all three.

Even though these 21 school systems are all different from one another and serve different neighborhoods, different populations, and have different challenges, I’ve come to understand that they all have at least one thing in common.  All of our school systems, and all of our schools, are a reflection of us.  They are a reflection of you and me and Central Alabama as a whole.

Our schools tell the story of what we are doing well as a community, and the story of how we continue to struggle.  Our schools tell us how we allocate our resources as a community. They tell us who is still falling through the cracks and how we are bridging gaps for the good of children.  If you want to know the story of Central Alabama, or even of a particular neighborhood, all you have to do is spend some time in the schools.

One of the largest school systems in our area has over 50 schools.  If you went around and toured every school in that system, touring one school per week, it would take you more than a year to see all of them.

On your tour, you would learn all sorts of things about the schools and our community.  You would see some great facilities—some of the schools in the system are very new.  You would see some very high performing students working through a challenging curriculum, including a robust IB program.  You would see caring, talented teachers, dedicated, dynamic administrators, and parents who want the best for their children.

If you toured every school in this large system, and you were keeping count, you would notice 1,400 students whose first languages are not English.  If you talked to those students, you would find that they speak a total of 47 different languages.  Let that sink in for a minute.  In Central Alabama, in one school system, there are 1,400 students whose first languages are not English, and there are 47 different languages among those students.   If you talked to the staff at the schools you would quickly learn that the schools are required, as they should be, to communicate with these students’ parents in a language that they can understand.  So they have found ways to make accommodations to communicate with parents in dozens of different languages, and they run summer camps and special Pre-K camps to help these students learn English.

If you kept working your way around on your tour of this large school system, you would also notice that in 46 of the schools you visited, there were homeless students.  These are students who do not have an “adequate, fixed, nighttime residence”.  If you were keeping count, you would notice that you had met 263 of these homeless students during your tour.  If you spoke to an administrator you would learn that the district receives $68.44 per year to provide services for each of the 263 students who do not know where they will be sleeping from one night to the next.  You would meet people who care deeply about these students and all of the students in the system who need help.

Our school systems are a reflection of us.  They are a reflection of you and me and our community as a whole.  They tell the story of what’s really going on. The best things and the most challenging things about our community are all right there in the schools.

This is what Bold Goals Education is really about.  It is about taking an honest look at where we are and the challenges our children face, and all of us, together, taking responsibility for building a better future for them.

Maybe that doesn’t really sound all that bold.  Probably everyone would say, “Sure, I think we should build a better future for our children.”

It starts to feel bold when we put a stake in the ground that says we’re going to help 2,500 more 3rd graders read proficiently in 5 years, and we expect the graduation rate to be 90% or better by 2020, with students prepared for college, career, and life.

It starts to feel Bold when superintendents come to the table and agree to share their internal data, not just with us, but with other school systems, with funders, and with corporate partners, so that we can all solve problems together.

It starts to feel bold when great nonprofit agencies all come to the table and agree to devote precious staff time and energy to developing common measures of success and aligning many of their services with each other, with schools, and with the goals of the Coalition.

It starts to feel bold when the State Department of Education relocates staff from Montgomery to the United Way building, not just to be closer to the schools in our region, but to be an everyday partner in the community’s work together.

It starts to feel bold when funders sit at the table together and start to agree that the community needs all of us working in alignment, pushing toward community-wide successes for which we can all share the credit.

Bold Goals Education is about all of us, together, taking clear, measureable, aligned action to build a better future for our children.  The only way we can be successful is if everybody comes to the table willing to challenge themselves and to give.

I recently took a tour of one of the elementary schools in our area.  If you could go on this tour, you would notice as you got close to the school that most of the houses in the neighborhood have seen better days, but the school building itself is pretty new.

But as you get closer to the building, you would notice something else.  There are all sorts of plants that someone carefully landscapes, all around the entrance to the school.  It’s clear that someone really invests themselves in tending to the plants.

If you were to walk into the building itself, you would immediately stop and stare.  There are plants, indoors, everywhere you look.  Each one of them perfectly watered and pruned.  There are shiny green leaves everywhere you look.  Someone spends a lot of time filling that school up with life, and you can feel the difference it makes. The air feels fresher, everyone’s mood seems lighter, and the children are glad to be there.

The person who tends all the plants is the custodian.  It’s not part of her job description.  She just loves children, loves the school, loves the community, and loves to garden.  So she brings all of these plants from home, and makes time in her busy days to make sure that school is full of life, inside and out.  She is bringing everything she can give to build a better future for our children.

I give to United Way every year because I believe in the work that our agencies doing, that our United Way is doing, and that our community coalitions are doing through Bold Goals. When I made my pledge this year, I thought back to that elementary school, and the incredible custodian who is bringing everything she has to give.  How can I give any less than she does?  She’s the reason why I’m giving more this year.

Dan Stephens

Vice President of Community Impact in Education

United Way of Central Alabama