CHAUTAUQUA - The moral imperative to provide all children with an education, despite background or economic status, was taken to heart by Rajiv Vinnakota.
Vinnakota spoke to the Chautauqua Institution on Wednesday about his co-founding of the SEED Foundation, a national non-profit organization, and what it means to a society in providing education to children who are less privileged. The SEED Foundation has established two public boarding schools, one in Washington, D.C. and the other in Maryland. The schools are located in the urban areas that they serve, he said.
"On average a black high school graduate has the same skills as a white student of eighth grade," he said. "The odds are stacked against them from day one."
Ravij Vinnakota, SEED?Foundation co-founder, is pictured speaking in the Hall of Philosophy at Chautauqua Institution on Wednesday.
P-J?photos by Andrew Carr
Vinnakota began his career as a scientist, and has applied a scientific approach to urban education. He began the foundation with Eric Adler, and approached the legislature of D.C. to found the school. He conducted research into social services targeted for these communities, and then made the case that for roughly the same amount of money that the government was spending per child on these services, he could offer them the boarding school option, which would allow them to learn life skills and prepare them for college.
Convincing the legislature to fund this program was a very hard task, he said.
"I have to tell you, it wasn't easy," he said. "We used private donations and foundations to fund the building of the school in D.C., and two years ago the one in Maryland."
The money was used to construct the campus and dormitories the students live and work in, while the grant money from the government provides them with an education that allows students who would normally not be able to have this chance to reach college level, he said. The D.C. school opened in 1998.
"We have almost 700 students in grades six through 12," he said. "The D.C. has been open for 12 years, and 97 percent of our graduates get to college. These are schools that give at risk kids a chance at a good life. Every child should have college preparatory education even if they don't choose to go to college."
Students who enter the school are generally far behind their counterparts, and need extensive programs in order to catch up. Vinnakota said that many of the students are two grades behind where they should be in school, however through the programs provided they are able to catch up and excel.
"They too can catch up and be prepared for college," he said. "It isn't cheap, and it isn't easy but it can be done. This is not about spending more money, but spending it equitably. "
The students are chosen through a lottery, with every student given an equal chance to be accepted, he said.
In order to provide equal education opportunities for all students, Vinnakota believes in education reform, as many of the speakers at the Institution this week have voiced.
"Each one of you and together can demand better schools everywhere," he said. "We need to support effective education reform with our time and our money. It renews my faith that there are wells of good will, such as Chautauqua, to help reform education."
Vinnakota has served on the board of The Empower Program, which works with youth to end the culture of violence, and is a former trustee of Princeton University. He currently sits on Oprah Winfrey's board of advisers.
The institution's Interfaith lecture series continues today Jeffrey R. Beard and Friday with a panel made up of Cathy Battaglia, Marion Pittman Couch and Maria Hersey.