I want to paint a picture for you about where I came from. And how a great education changed my life.
I grew up in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood in North Philadelphia. Some of you might know Strawberry Mansion High School, usually rated as one of the top five worst high schools in the country and worst in the city. The average SAT score last year, out of 1600, was 955, the lowest in the state. But that’s not the whole reason it’s so bad. It’s the violence.
The violence was so profound that Diane Sawyer did a report on it for ABC News. The school has 94 security cameras. I knew of many friends that brought guns to school. Not for school itself, but for that six blocks they had to walk to get home through a neighborhood with the highest rates of rape, assaults, and homicide in Philadelphia.
In 2008, a young man at Strawberry Mansion high school was shot in the back after getting his diploma at graduation. I knew him. We played basketball together.
The first time a saw a shootout with my own eyes, I was nine years old. When I was ten, I saw my first drug transaction. When I was eleven, it was the first time I saw someone get killed. And it wasn’t the last.
I’m probably the only male in my family that doesn’t have a record. I have cousins serving five to ten year prison sentences. My father is getting out this year after a six year stint. These are normal stories in my neighborhood.
A story that isn’t normal is my own. And that’s largely thanks to my mother, and her vision for my education. She had me at only twenty years old, five years younger than I am now. She worked at Comcast, and on her way to work, she would pass by a private school called Abington Friends. After riding by it each day, she knew that was where I had to go.
My life would have been completely different if I didn’t go to Abington. And I wouldn’t have been able to continue on at Abington without the scholarship program. There’s a publicly funded scholarship program in Pennsylvania that’s like many across the country: it puts families in control of their child’s educational funding. I’ll be forever grateful for the program. It saved my life.
I eventually graduated from Abington Friends. I went on to Temple University, and became the first in my family to graduate from college. Today I’m an entrepreneur. I own a daycare, which reached its full capacity in its first year. I’m trying to open another daycare next year. I’m starting a successful entertainment career and maybe you’ve seen me in a few TV commercials for Boost Mobile, Redbull, Foot Locker, or Nike. I don’t think anyone in my family has made as much income as me – well, at least legally.
But I know where I came from. When I have my own family someday, I want to bring my kids to Strawberry Mansion. I want to show them that their father’s family was poor. And that it was tough. They will know that they are fortunate – all because I had access to a great education. An education of my mother’s choice.
Otherwise, that arbitrary red line that some stranger drew many years ago would have confined me to the Strawberry Mansion public school. It could have confined me to a life behind bars, too. Giving kids access to the education that best fits their needs, or puts them in a safe environment – that’s what matters.
Because I know I was blessed with that choice, I try to give back. After the daycare closes, I bring my cousin leftover food or some sleeping bags and hand-me-downs. My cousins don’t always know when their next shower or meal might come. I’m working hard every day on more business opportunities because I’m doing it for people other than myself. I want to take care of my own family, and my future family. I want to take care of my mom.
One day I want to be a philanthropist giving back to help kids who might be just like me, kids who might be destined to a life of poverty, a life behind bars, or in an early grave, all because of their ZIP code’s school. I’ve realized throughout my life that kids need to be exposed to what’s possible; they need to see hope for their future. And that’s why having choice and options in education is so important.
I saw it in my private school, I see it in my daycare, I see it at the charter schools in my area, like at Boys Latin just down the road from me. Public or private, what matters is that we focus on exposing kids to that hope, that chance, that opportunity – and giving them a choice. We need to focus on those stars that could be lighting up the sky, and guiding America to a better future.