Ryan, keynote speaker at the 38th Forum on Education at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, told an audience of approximately 140 educators, school administrators and school boards members that society has to look at what works in preparing children for school and either college or a career.
“I was a first gen student,” Ryan said. “I grew up in a small, bluecollar town in northern New Jersey, attended public schools, and my parents cared a lot about education even though they hadn’t gone to college. I had a few teachers who took great interest in me.”
That interest and support, Ryan said, combined with financial aid and his parents’ savings, led him to Yale and to law school at the University of Virginia.
“They got me to wondering at that point why the education system worked for me when it failed so many other students,” Ryan said. “In some respects, that’s a question I’ve been investigating ever since.”
Southwest Virginia faces a declining coal economy and population loss as people leave the region to find work, Ryan said, but the region’s school systems and teachers are still fighting the odds. Wise County’s school system has been the top performer in its region and fifth among the state’s 132 school districts in Standards of Learning test pass rates.
Ryan also pointed to UVa-Wise’s longtime support of school districts. Ninety percent of Wise County teachers and 75 percent of Norton City Schools teachers are UVa-Wise graduates, he said, and the college’s planned graduate program in education will help tackle regional disparities in teachers with master’s degrees.
In Fairfax County, Ryan said, 100 percent of teachers have a master’s degree while only 20 percent of Lee County teachers have a master’s.
Aside from dealing with regional disparity, Ryan said the American public needs to commit to working on three major goals: improving early childhood development through age 4; focusing on children’s needs outside school such as basic health care, character education and noncognitive skills; and working on students’ access to both college and non-college career education paths.
“I used to think when I was dean at the [Harvard University] ed school that guidance counselors were sort of a frill,” Ryan said. “I’ve changed my mind completely. The average caseload for a guidance counselor is 471 students.
“I’m convinced that these are the right goals,” Ryan said. “I look forward to the day when every child has the chance to reach his or her potential.”
UVa-Wise Academic Dean Amelia Harris became the 30th recipient of the Forum’s annual William P. Kanto Memorial Award later in the evening. William P. Kanto Jr. — the son of the award’s namesake — said that Harris over 30 years as a resident, school parent, college professor and dean has worked for bringing foreign language education to local schools, supporting international travel and educational programs and helping UVa-Wise grow and strengthen academically.