Brad Leon heads up Teach For America in Memphis:

Every time Barack Obama said, “Yes we can,” during his presidential campaign, and especially on election night, I was reminded of why I became an educator. Teaching in New Orleans, I saw firsthand the effects of the academic achievement gap between children in low-income communities and their counterparts in wealthier areas. Most importantly, I saw that this gap can be closed.

In my daily work in Memphis I see President-elect Obama’s message of hope and change continuing to resonate. I urge Memphis to seize this historic opportunity to strengthen our country by addressing our educational challenges. Based on my experience, I believe we can do this by focusing on three essential strategies.

First, continue to hold schools accountable for the achievement of all students, using assessments and data to identify effective policies and teaching methods. If our nation is going to raise achievement levels for low-income students, we must establish clear, consistent standards and be fearless about collecting and analyzing data to measure our progress. These measures can then be used to inform policy decisions, resource allocation, and better classroom instruction.

Second, invest in programs that produce leaders at the classroom, school, and district level. By increasing the pool of top-notch education professionals, we can bring new energy and ideas to our schools. Here in Memphis, the school district should continue to recruit new teachers and administrators from the top graduates of outstanding local colleges and build on its partnerships with programs like Teach For America. Schools, like any workplace, require effective leadership and top human capital to produce results.

Finally, we should build on the energy and leadership of young people as a force for change. At Teach For America, we have seen the impact that young people can have in the classroom and beyond. Our alumni, numbering more than 14,000 across the country, are bringing entrepreneurial, visionary leadership to address our nation’s education challenges. One example is Chris Barbic, a Vanderbilt alumnus and the principal of YES College Prep in Houston. While 80 percent of YES Prep students are economically disadvantaged, 100 percent of the school’s graduating seniors in the past eight years have been accepted to four-year colleges, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Rice, and Stanford. With 91 percent of YES alumni having graduated from or currently enrolled in a four-year college, Barbic is demonstrating that students in low-income communities can learn at the highest levels when given the educational opportunities they deserve.

Yes, we can make educational equity the reality in Memphis. By focusing on student outcomes and supporting leadership at all levels of our education system, our city can fulfill America’s promise to our children. They deserve no less.