December 21, 2001

Commentary

Harnessing the Power of Unity and Innovation

By Gail Christopher and Stephen Goldsmith

The events of September 11th sparked a level of patriotism the U.S. has not witnessed since World War II. Americans can be deeply proud of how we have come together in the face of adversity. Wouldn't it be truly remarkable though, if we could harness the power of this newly minted unity - not only to protect our nation against terrorism, but also to help eliminate the socioeconomic disparities that still burden so many of our citizens?

Historically, these problems fall most heavily on African, Latino and Native Americans - especially in the area of education. Young people from these backgrounds often lack access to rigorous academic programs. This situation is particularly dire when it comes to math and science. Fortunately, there is reason for optimism: a California-based program - Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) - is tackling this problem with a unique approach that is gaining national attention.

On December 13th, MESA was named as one of five winners of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University's 2001 Innovations in American Government Awards, which annually celebrate outstanding creative problem solving in federal, state and local governments. The program received a $100,000 prize to spread the word about and encourage replication of their innovation.

The MESA story began in late 1960s, when university of California professor Bill Somerton discovered that less than one percent of engineering graduates were African, Latino or Native American. Motivated by this revelation, Somerton created MESA to help educationally underserved students study math, science and engineering beyond high school.

Unity is a big part of the MESA equation. The program fosters communitywide partnerships across the state. To properly groom students in math and science, elementary, high school and college educators provide a high level of support, both in the classroom and after school. MESA also encourages parents to play an active role, training them to furnish the necessary reinforcement at home. For their part, private-sector representatives promote career opportunities and teach students about the skills they need to flourish in today's high-tech world.

The results have certainly been impressive. MESA currently serves more than 30,800 students through a network of 440 elementary and high schools, 35 community colleges and 23 universities. And there can be no debating its effectiveness: Eighty-five percent of high school graduates who participate in MESA attend college - much higher than the state average of 50 percent. As a testament to these successes, seven other states have established similar programs.

The people involved with this initiative deserve to be commended for their diligence and creativity. MESA demonstrates how the power of innovation and the spirit of unity can overcome even our most daunting challenges. And that's an important lesson for every government and every citizen - now more than ever.

Gail Christopher is Executive Director of the Institute for Government Innovation at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, where Stephen Goldsmith is Faculty Director.

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