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Raising Arizona Kids

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

PEARL CHANG ESAU: Cultural change for Arizona’s students

Pearl Chang Esau is the president and CEO of Expect More Arizona, a communications and advocacy organization dedicated to bringing what she calls “world class education” to all students in Arizona.

Expect More’s goal is to enlist parents’ help to raise the expectations for students so they are better prepared for jobs requiring higher levels of education than many are currently attaining. Esau started as a teacher with Teach for America and was its executive director in Phoenix before coming to Expect More.

Who is Expect More trying to reach?

Primarily voters, who can really make a big difference when it comes to education; also parents and students. Research tells us that engaged parents increase high school and college graduation rates and increase the overall ability for kids to succeed later on in life.

We’re really working to empower parents in taking more of an active role in understanding what their kids need to learn in school each year. Arizona just adopted new state standards, called Arizona Common Core Standards. No matter where your kids are, whether in Massachusetts—the highest performing state, according to the Kids Count Data Book—or Arizona (ranked 46), all kids are going to be held to the same level of expectations, ready to graduate high school, ready for college and career.

These standards are going to be quite a bit more difficult than the standards we currently have in place and parents are going to play a very important role in helping us make that transition.

So you’re trying to get people to raise expectations for their children. If you scheduled a meeting for anyone interested in learning more about education, isn’t anyone who didn’t show up actually your target audience?

Yes and no. Overall we really need to raise the bar for all Arizona kids. A lot of people don’t know that 85 percent of high-growth, high-wage jobs in Arizona today are going to require some form of postsecondary education—that’s career training, community college or college.

If we expect that our kids are going to be able to enter the middle class and have jobs that allow them to live good, decent lives, postsecondary education is actually non-negotiable.

Arizona has one of the lowest postsecondary attainment rates in the country. Out of every 10 high school graduates in Arizona, only five qualify for admission to Arizona universities.

We’re not just talking about the parents who don’t show up at back-to-school night, we’re actually talking to all parents.

How do you reach the people with low expectations when even the people who think they do have high expectations aren’t expecting enough?\

As a parent, the best thing you can do is to go to your child’s school and sit down to talk with the teacher. You can get a sense of who the good teachers are at the school and whether your child has a teacher who is challenging [him or her].

We created simple tips and tools for each grade level with milestones your child should be reaching each year, according to the new, rigorous standards (expectmorearizona.org/resources/parents/parentmaterials).

There are some external indicators that parents should really look into. You can go to the counselor’s office or front office [at your child’s high school] and say, “I would like to know what percentage of kids graduate from this high school and go directly to college. Is there a college-going culture at this high school?” Start asking some important questions.

Pearl Chang Esau and daughter Kaiya (2).

Your daughter Kaiya (2) will obviously grow up with high expectations. When she gets older, how do you think your involvement with Expect More Arizona will affect the way you parent her?

I think I am where I am because of my parents. I’m Chinese and my relatives come from Taiwan and China and education is the most important thing. Our family motto is: “Knowledge and education are power and that’s the only thing no one can take away from you.” That’s how I was brought up. I grew up in an immigrant family, English was my second language—my dad grew up poor. They got to where they are because of education.

The thing my husband and I worry about is Kaiya being born into having a lot more than we did. I think it kind of helped both of us to not have a lot [growing up] because we still had that sense of “we have to work really hard if we’re going to make it.” Kaiya is one generation removed because she’s growing up in a nice, middle-class home and I don’t know if she’s going to see quite as much why education is so relevant and so important. That is going to be our job—to help her understand why it is.

Daniel Friedman, a staff writer and photographer and former middle school teacher, conducted this interview.

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