Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Mayors' stories out of school

By Deena Zaru, CNN
October 28, 2013 -- Updated 1411 GMT (2211 HKT)
Growing up, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson said he wanted to be a professional baseball player, especially for the Oakland A's. "And if that didn't work out so well then I wanted to be a teacher because teachers had such an impact on me, like my third-grade teacher. Teaching is one of the most noble professions in the world." He ended up playing professional basketball with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns. Growing up, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson said he wanted to be a professional baseball player, especially for the Oakland A's. "And if that didn't work out so well then I wanted to be a teacher because teachers had such an impact on me, like my third-grade teacher. Teaching is one of the most noble professions in the world." He ended up playing professional basketball with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns.
Kevin Johnson of Sacramento
Julian Castro of San Antonio
Michael Hancock of Denver
Angel Taveras of Providence, Rhode Island
  • Four American mayors are touring each other's city to learn more education solutions
  • Mayors from California, Texas, Colorado and Rhode Island are on the tour
  • The mayors shared stories from their own school experiences
  • Providence mayor: Education "is a fundamental right and it's a path out of poverty"

(CNN) -- Mayors Julian Castro of San Antonio, Michael Hancock of Denver, Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, California, and Angel Taveras of Providence, Rhode Island, each attended public schools in the cities they now lead.

This month, they launched a tour to meet educators, families and innovators in each of their cities, with the hope of understanding their shared problems -- and potential for solutions.

"Education is more than a quality of life issue. Education impacts everything that we do in the city. It really is a fundamental right and it's a path out of poverty," Taveras said. "We're working to see what's going on in each other's city and to share solutions and help adapt them to our own city."

They hope to take home lessons learned in each city in order to address gaps between wealthier areas with great schools and poorer neighborhoods where schools struggle. The tour will continue through March.

"We have an achievement gap between children of color and white kids that quite frankly, if we don't address and begin to address effectively with some sense of urgency, will threaten the real vitality and freedoms of this country," Hancock said.

Here are lessons the four mayors learned by working with their cities' schools -- and through their own experiences as students.

Not all A's are created equal

Before he was mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson had gotten a basketball scholarship to Berkeley and thought he was a good student, he said.

But during his freshman year at University of California Berkeley, Johnson realized that getting A's and B's in high school didn't mean he was prepared for college.

Delaying Kindergarten: Good or bad?
Rethinking K-12 education: Crawl-12?
The benefits of starting education early

"I was in an English class with 30 kids and they were all talking about a word -- the word was 'euphemism' -- and 29 of those kids knew what the word meant," Johnson said. "I was the only kid who did not know the word 'euphemism' and I remember thinking, 'Am I in the wrong class?'"

Johnson realized then that an A in one school might not equal to an A in another, and even students with good grades can be in for a rude awakening when they go to college. (After graduating from Berkeley, Johnson went on to play twelve seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Phoenix Suns.)

"Far too often a child's educational outcomes are determined by her or his ZIP code, and that's the case in Sacramento, too, and this has led to an unacceptable achievement gap," Johnson said, describing how slow they've been to close the gap between white and black students' scores. "It's horrifying."

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock described a similar experience.

"I got into college, as well as many of my peers, and we realized we were not where we needed to be, we were behind some of our peers," he said. "So we had to do special classes and programming to get caught up and really put in the extra effort."

He struggled with writing and math early in college, he said, which makes him consider what hard-to-spot problems might exist in Denver's schools.

"That's where we begin to see some of the cracks and some of the gaps that may not be as apparent in the primary system," said Hancock, who is an advocate of school choice. "Families should be able to pursue the best possible educational opportunity that is available to them, no matter where that opportunity exists in the city,"

Teachers can change lives

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was just a few years into his school career when he began to understand the power of a good teacher.

"In the first or second grade, I had a teacher who gave me extra homework to do and she explained that she had confidence that I could do the extra work and that made me feel great about myself," Castro said. "I got to excel in school and that was the beginning of my feeling good about achieving academically."

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras said he became a lawyer because his third-grade teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Donaldson, told him he could.

"She was someone who asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up and I told her that I wanted to be a lawyer. She asked me 'Why?' and I told her that I wanted to help people. She made me repeat it to anyone and everyone who would listen," Taveras said.

The same teacher suggested Taveras test for a gifted program, which allowed him to take more intense math classes, and eventually led him to a more challenging school.

It's never too early to start learning

Taveras, himself a graduate of the early childhood education program Head Start, said he has worked to improve early childhood literacy in his city by introducing programs such as Providence Talks.

Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Schools of Thought. Follow us on Twitter @CNNschools or on CNN Living on Facebook for the latest stories and to share your perspective.

The program aims to close the "word gap." Research shows low-income children hear millions fewer words in the early years of their lives than their peers in middle- or upper-income homes.

The program provides low-income children with recording devices that count the words they're exposed to each, and coaching parents and caregivers on how to improve their children's vocabularies. The devices work in several languages, including English and Spanish, and is expected to launch in 2014.

Providence Talks was the winner of the $5 million Bloomberg Philanthropy Mayors Challenge, a contest created by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to draw out ideas from city leaders.

Castro described how San Antonio residents had recently voted to fund full-day pre-kindergarten for more than 22,000 of the city's 4-year-olds over the next eight years. Castro said he hopes it will prevent students from falling behind, experiencing the frustration of falling behind and perhaps dropping out.

Children's educations can begin even before they're enrolled in school, he said.

"One of the biggest challenges is ensuring that students are prepared when they start school," Castro said. "We have so many young people who are not read to and they're not prepared when they start pre-k."

Part of complete coverage on
CNN Schools of Thought helps parents, teachers and students learn what's happening in education.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
A teen's school project became much more after the accidental death of her father.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1806 GMT (0206 HKT)
Around the country, children are turning their big, creative ideas into money-making businesses.
May 5, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Many kids spend too much time with screens -- and it's not good for them, Susan Linn writes.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Some schools and teachers no longer believe that sitting still and quiet are the best ways for kids to learn.
March 29, 2014 -- Updated 0730 GMT (1530 HKT)
A teen's school science fair experiment became a big idea -- one that could save millions.
March 10, 2014 -- Updated 2111 GMT (0511 HKT)
Some schools are freeing up time for students' passion projects -- and teaching them how to learn from failure.
March 6, 2014 -- Updated 1534 GMT (2334 HKT)
The 2016 SAT college exam will undergo sweeping changes on what's tested, how it's scored and how students can prepare.
March 17, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
SAT creators say they're cutting obscure, easy-to-forget vocabulary words from the test. But are they really going away?
April 4, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
What do employers want? Someone who has seen the world.