Much has changed in the life of Ben Carson since he was awarded the Simon Prize in 2005. He has retired from his position as the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. He has become a television personality and political commentator, even discussed as a potential Presidential candidate. What has not changed is the focus of his philanthropy.
Carson’s inspirational story is by now well-known. Growing up in inner-city Detroit, the child of a single mother with a third-grade education but high expectations and strict rules for her children, he did well enough in school to gain admission to Yale University and then the University of Michigan’s medical school. He quickly earned world prominence as a surgeon, including in 1987 when he successfully led dozens of surgeons in a 22-hour operation to separate twins conjoined at the back of their heads—the first successful procedure of its kind.
Over the years, traveling to many poor communities to tell his story, Carson has been struck by the number of students who have no books at home. These children are not exposed to any reading before they start kindergarten, and many do not develop the love of books that spurred his own educational journey.
So Carson has funneled almost all of his philanthropy into building reading rooms at schools with high percentages of low-income kids. The colorful, themed rooms, with murals and comfortable places to curl up with a good book, are meant to fire up children’s imaginations. The 110 reading rooms he and his wife have created include one in Denver with a cowboy theme and another near the NASA flight center in Florida that is decorated like a space capsule. If you look out one of the “windows,” you see the Earth below. One room on the coast of Maryland resembles a pier jutting over the water. Adults in each community are invited to help create the rooms, and asked to come in and read to children or share stories of their own educations once they are open. And families are urged to reinforce reading for their children at home.
The existence of the reading rooms, along with a system of points and prizes that students get for completing books, has had a real effect on academic performance, says Carson. He reports that the program has brought students “from extremely low levels on standardized tests to well above average” in successful schools.
Carson used the proceeds from his Simon Prize to build even more reading rooms. “It was truly spectacular to have received the prize,” he says, “not just because of the monetary aspect, but because it lends credence to what you’re doing.” It has encouraged other donors to contribute to the program.
Improving U.S. education, he says, has to be a broad-based effort that includes changing cultural views. “Small kids aren’t that anxious for people to know they’re smart because they’re looked at as nerds. We need to turn education into a positive thing to counterbalance the message of pop culture.”
As one contribution he launched the Carson Scholars Fund, which aims to turn studious kids into role models. In its first year, 1996, 25 awards of $1,000 were given. Now the program hands out 500 scholarships annually, and Carson has seen ripple effects. “A student who wins one will get local press attention. He or she will be invited to a banquet. Other kids think, ‘I will do that too.’” One Carson scholar, teachers report, can inject enough enthusiasm to raise the GPA of an entire class.