You don’t have to look far in Las Vegas for a hero. Especially when it comes to helping public education in our community.
For the past 25 years, the Public Education Foundation (PEF) has been stepping up and stepping into the breach in the quality of our public education system in Southern Nevada.
Decades ago, leaders like Sig Rogich understood the dire needs that weren’t being met — either by a perennially stingy Nevada Legislature or a growing -too-fast-to-keep-up pace of change — for our young people whose education couldn’t wait for the adults to fulfill their responsibility. Sig took the lead and helped form the PEF, which has ensured that teachers needs in their classrooms were met and other shortages in our schools were addressed as timely as possible.
Over the years, The Public Education Foundation has recognized community leaders and standouts at its annual Education Hero Awards Dinner. This year’s event, Sept. 23 at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, was a success, just like all the others have been, because the people who came to support it put their money and their mouths where it is needed most: toward education.
I am writing about this dinner for two reasons, both of which have to do with encouraging the entire Southern Nevada community to step up its commitment to public education. Now, more than ever, it is essential that our city and our country produce well-educated citizens if we are to continue as a democracy of, by and for the people.
The first is to acknowledge the 25-year commitment Sig has made as he steps down as the only chairman of the board of the PEF. He is stepping up to chairman emeritus status, which means the needs of public education will concern him on a part-time basis not as a full-time job.
Taking his place is, perhaps, the one person who can do the job without skipping a beat. Jan Jones Blackhurst lives, eats and breathes public education because she understands that a community is only as good as its least-educated resident, and her goal as long as I have known her is to elevate Las Vegas to a place of excellence. So the PEF is in good hands going forward.
The other reason is to recognize this year’s honorees in a more public way.
We have all known Richard Steele as a Hall of Fame boxing referee. There were none better as the third man in the ring during some of the greatest boxing matches ever conducted. But what many don’t know is what Richard has been doing with his time since retiring. He has been working nonstop at the Richard Steele Foundation and Boxing Club where he has been turning around young lives one at a time. For this, he was given the much-deserved Champion of Children Award.
The Lifetime Education Achievement Award was presented (posthumously) to the family of Sen. Debbie Smith, who practically died on the job of making sure that Nevada did her level best in supporting public education in this state. Sen. Smith had no quit in her when it came to making sure we did right by Nevada’s school kids.
The Education Hero Award went to Michael Brown and Barrick Gold Corp. Since I have more than a passing interest in Barrick, I was delighted to see that company recognized for all it does for public education. But, it is what Michael does and his passion for education that ensures Barrick’s significant commitment to Nevada’s children.
However, it was more about what Michael said that made the night so fulfilling. Michael recently became a permanent resident of Southern Nevada, which was symbolized by getting his driver’s license. So, he told the people in the room, that gave him license to speak his mind. His words should be our words.
I have edited them for brevity but the clarity remains.
“I am concerned about those who scapegoat public education and the scorn I hear directed at teachers. Really? Who cares more for students than teachers?
“Public education is a public good, it’s not a private consumable. Our public education system is the incubator of citizenship. It is the modern-day melting pot of our society.
‘I attended a school (many years ago) that was not much different than the one Opie Taylor attended in mythical Mayberry. However, in the race to the nostalgia of Mayberry, we exaggerate the glory of the past.
“My school had no ESL programs because we had no children of immigrants as there were no immigrants living in my Mayberry. Nor did we have people of color. This was an era of segregation.
“There was hunger in my classroom but there was no backpack program. My classmates just went hungry all day.
“Those with learning challenges didn’t have any special programs. No, they were segregated into a separate row of chairs by the windows, forever stigmatized and never served. Don’t try to tell me that those were the halcyon days.
“Today we are addressing those challenges inside our schools. Support that effort, don’t belittle them as ‘government schools.’
“President John Adams said: ‘There should not be a district one mile square without a school in it. Not one founded by charity of individual, but maintained at the expense of the people themselves.’”
Michael Brown speaks like a hero should. He and his fellow honorees act as heroes should.
We would all do well to emulate them.
Brian Greenspun is editor, publisher and owner of the Sun.