Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Tough Act to Follow:
Colin Powell Addresses NAESP Convention

Few people could follow an opening act like Sheldon Dudley’s. The third grader from Louisiana opened the second general session of the 2009 NAESP convention in New Orleans. Dudley brought the house down -- and the audience to its feet -- with his inspiring rendition of our national anthem.

Then it was up to Colin Powell to follow that opening act.

Powell chatted a bit about his transition from public life to private citizen. He shared funny and humbling anecdotes about flying commercial again after years of private charters or Air Force One and about life after the Secret Service.

Today, Powell spreads his time over a handful of causes. One of those pet causes is dropout prevention. That also happens to be a primary focus of the America’s Promise Alliance, which Powell chaired at its founding and his wife, Alma, chairs today.

“Dropout rates are morally wrong and economically foolish,” Powell told the assembled school leaders. “A student drops out every 29 seconds. That’s more than a million students a year.”

To address the dropout issue, the America’s Promise Alliance is holding more than 100 Dropout Prevention Summits across the United States.

“Kids might drop out of high school, but they start dropping out in kindergarten, first, and second grade,” said Powell.

“It even starts before that -- with parents,” he said, adding, “Kids need more laptop time: I mean time sitting on a lap, parents reading to their kids.”

That led Powell to reminisce about his own childhood in New York City, where he couldn’t get away with anything because he had an aunt living on every other block. “You think the Internet is fast,” Powell laughed. Information never traveled faster, he said, than when one of his aunts caught him doing something wrong.

It was an appropriate coincidence that Powell was speaking on the 41st anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Appropriate all the more because another of Powell’s pet projects is bringing to reality the dream of a Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. In addition, Powell is honorary chair of the effort to build an Education Center at the Vietnam Wall. The center will house photos and artifacts that will put faces to the names on the wall.

Powell didn’t mind at all being upstaged by Sheldon Dudley’s “National Anthem.” He’s used to being one-upped by kids, it seems. While he takes great pride in the fact that seven elementary or middle schools have been named after him, Powell said with a chuckle that “nothing means more to me than to know that for generations to come youngsters will look up at the name of their school and ask Who was he?”

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