To his credit, education policy reform is much in the air since President Barack Obama took office. A huge block of dollars from the Stimulus Package is earmarked for schools that advance innovative approaches to teaching children. Rev. Al Sharpton, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, an unlikely trio, have been touring the country calling for an end to the education achievement gap. And, during a rally attended by Arne Duncan at the conclusion of the 45th Anniversary Commemoration of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, education advocates led by Atty. Faya Rose Sanders, challenged the Secretary to make education a “civil rights issue” in the 21st Century.
I am certain the education advocates assembled by Atty. Sanders have much to offer in terms of a formula for quality 21st Century education, particularly for children of African descent in impoverished communities. However, beyond a heavy dose of charter schools and an emphasis on quantitative achievement on standardized tests, I’m not clear what President Obama and Secretary Duncan, or Rev. Sharpton and Newt Gingrich for that matter, are prescribing to end the achievement gap between children of African descent and their White counterparts. Though I lay no claim to being an education expert, based on a range of experiences, I have long thought about what would constitute a model school and educational paradigm in distressed Black communities. My conclusion is that it really does take a “village” to educate Black children in America’s “dark ghettos.”
I went to 13 public schools in three states before graduating high school. It was a rough ride, but all along the way, there were outstanding teachers who made a difference in my life. In Youngstown, Ohio, where I founded and chaired a community-based organization, Freedom, Inc., I spent years working with grassroots, parent advocacy organizations and students fighting to improve the quality of education in the public schools. In addition, Freedom, Inc. had an independent educational institution, the Marcus Garvey School for African Education, which had early education (pre-school) and after school programs. It is from these experiences that I have extrapolated ideas/concepts/approaches for a model school in distressed Black communities. A model that I presented two decades ago at a symposium on education sponsored by the Board of Education in Omaha, Nebraska.
My first observation is that a cookie cutter, one size fits all design, based on a two parent middle class family/home simply cannot be imposed carte blanche in distressed Black communities plagued by poverty, unemployment, under-employment, blighted housing, health disparities, drugs, crime, violence and high rates of incarceration. I cringe when I hear education experts, policy analysts and concerned citizens blithely insisting that “education must begin in the home,” and “parents have to take responsibility for being involved in the education of their children.” No reasonable person could argue with these propositions. However, they simple do not take into account that in distressed Black communities a large number of families are under severe stress/strain because of their economic circumstances. A disproportionate number of households are headed by single females with limited income and employment options. A large number of fathers/men are unemployed, in prison or under correctional supervision -- bearing the career limiting “mark” of formerly incarcerated persons. There is a fundamental flaw in the assumption that families afflicted by these circumstances will miraculously function like a “stable” two parent, middle class family. In addition, this faulty premise leads to an inability to conceptualize a model based on the reality at hand.
The model school and educational paradigm must begin with the reality that large numbers of families (not all) in distressed Black communities will have serious difficulties assisting their children to engage the educational process effectively. Based on that assumption, the school must become the center of the village that lovingly wraps its arms around the child and his/her family with the support of key institutions, organizations and agencies in the community. The school must not only be a focal point for educational achievement. It must be the place where a range of vital services is housed to support the student and his/her family. For example, in my model school there would be a health center to provide primary care, mental health, alcohol and drug abuse counseling for families. Social workers would be present to assist families to cope with a range of issues that impact their lives, including facilitating access to social services, adult education and job training programs to improve the skills and employment opportunities of families. Outreach specialists charged with orienting and organizing parents and community agencies/institutions to become engaged in the educational process would also be present.
The model school would also have after school and Saturday school programs for students as well as relationships with community centers and agencies that might provide cultural, educational and recreational activities like male and female rites of passage programs and civic engagement projects. In distressed Black communities, public schools must essentially take on the character of multi-purpose centers providing a broad range of services that strengthen children and families and create the foundation for high educational achievement.
With this foundation, there are several ingredients that would be incorporated into the educational paradigm of my model school to achieve success. One of the most important ingredients is well paid, multi-talented, innovative, loving teachers who are absolutely convinced that every child can learn no matter their circumstances. The intangibles of “love” for children and high expectations are as important as formal educational training. At the Marcus Garvey School for African Education, we took individuals without formal courses or degrees in education from college/university and trained them to be early education teachers. Based on teaching methodologies and curricula developed by the Federation of Pan African Educational Institutions, these individuals became excellent teachers. The most powerful ingredients in their approach were love and high expectations that inspired the children to believe they could achieve!
Another factor that was important to the success of the program was a holistic, African-centered curriculum. Rather than teach reading, writing, science, art, music as separate/distinct subjects, instructors created learning exercises where these subjects were integrated. For example, a music lesson might include opportunities to count, recite and write. Finally and of utmost importance, African history and culture were infused throughout the curriculum to instill self-esteem in the children as young persons of African descent. Without exception, the students from the early education program at Marcus Garvey went on to do well once they entered elementary school.
These same ingredients/factors will work in the public schools at all levels. Students can sense when teachers do not believe they can learn and are turned off by curricula that they perceive as boring and irrelevant to their daily existence. Conversely, students respond when they feel the passion/love from their teachers and are challenged with creative, culturally sensitive curriculum that inspires them to be the best they can be as critical thinking persons who can contribute to self and society. Time and time again, independent Black educational institutions have demonstrated that an African-centered curriculum can inspire students to surpass their peers on reading, math and science tests in public schools [in today’s world, I can’t imagine that teachers would not seek to find ways to utilize positive Hip Hop as an educational tool along with all the new technologies]. I also believe there is a correlation between curriculum and discipline in schools. Show me a school that has a boring curriculum with uninspiring teachers and there is a high probability this school has a problem with discipline. One of the best correctives for discipline problems is a creative curriculum taught by outstanding teachers.
In addition, we can take lessons from the one room schoolhouse that provided a basic education for many of our forebears, particularly in the South. It is interesting how a single teacher successfully taught several grades in the same space. Under these circumstances one of the secrets to success was engaging students from higher grades to serve as teaching assistants/tutors for students in the lower grades. I see no reason why this kind of tutoring/mentoring system could not be adapted to public schools. Being selected as a student teacher assistant to tutor students in lower grades would certainly do a lot for one’s self-esteem and cultivate skills for leadership/service in the community.
Finally, I have found that the non-academic elements of an educational paradigm can be as important as academic subject matter in inspiring students to learn. I will never forget how a troubled junior high school in Youngstown with low performing students and major discipline problems was turned around because the Principal accepted a recommendation from a new faculty member that the school institute a Black College high stepping style band program, e.g. Grambling, Jackson State. The new band was a sensation and source of great pride for the students and became a major factor in an amazing turnaround of the school. Sometimes non-academic programs can have a significant impact on discipline and educational achievement.
While education experts are obsessed with standardized tests (and teaching students to pass the test), I contend that much more is required to rescue Black students trapped in poor performing schools in America’s dark ghettos. If we search our collective experiences as a people of African descent, I think we will conclude that it takes an entire village with innovative, culturally sensitive educational approaches and multitalented teachers for Black students from distressed communities to achieve educational excellence in the 21st Century.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com. To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.