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Franklin Symposium: Black Achievement Suffers

Franklin Symposium: Black Achievement Suffers
Because of Inadequate Relationships With Teachers

Scholars at John Hope Franklin symposium looking for next generation
to engage on issues relevant to Black community.
By John McCann

Durham, N.C.

In this city, now unfortunately infamous for an elite university’s lacrosse team party that may have gotten out of hand, sit two high schools under a judge’s threat of closure because not enough students appear to be on track to attend any college, much less Duke University..

Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning has his eye on 19 schools across North Carolina, including Durham’s Hillside High and Southern High. The schools have both wrapped up for the year, and Manning has said they ought to be shut down if 55 percent of students don’t pass the final exams.

Much of the debate around this issue has centered on underperforming Black students. Many experts on Black student issues have argued that it is almost impossible to boost academic results among those students without first addressing socioeconomic factors like hunger and unstable living situations.

It was those themes that were touched on repeatedly by scholars and higher education administrators during a June 16-17 symposium on Duke’s campus. Sponsored by Diverse: Issues In Higher Education magazine, the event celebrated the scholarship of 91-year-old historian Dr. John Hope Franklin. The overriding message of the conference, named after Franklin, was the need to find the next generation of Black thinkers.

Dr. Michael Nettles, senior vice president for policy evaluation and

research at the Educational Testing Service, knows exactly where to find the next batch of Black intellectuals. He says they’re in grade schools all over the country.

Controlling for socioeconomics, his research bears out that test scores for low-income Black children are not nearly as dire as reported. These students are performing rather well, he said.

But things go south for these students when, for whatever reason, there exist inadequate relationships with schoolteachers. Without that significant interaction, a student languishes, right along with the prospect of becoming the next John Hope Franklin.

“The difficulty is developing the talent across the population,” Nettles said.

Marilyn Bell-Hawley teaches at a Durham charter school. Board certified and an adjunct professor of education at nearby North Carolina Central University, Bell-Hawley will tell you she knows what these kids need. She says she’s the kind of teacher who can cut through all the junk at the periphery of the classroom that keeps teachers and students from fully engaging.

At the same time, though, there’s the traditional way of doing things, and when the White principal running the show says fall in line, the practical teacher looking to keep her lights on gets in step.
“I have bills to pay,” Bell-Hawley said. “What am I to do?”

What is academia to do — in particular, what is the school of Black .

thought to do — when John Hope Franklin’s potential successors are seemingly never given the chance to come into their own? That question has as much to do with the students already in college as it does with those trying to get there. It’s a question generally answered by three elusive letters — Ph.D.

The doctoral degree is still an elite one. Less than 1.2 percent of America’s adult population older than 25 has a doctorate, according to Nettles. Roughly 40,710 were awarded in 2003.

Only a small percentage of them went to Black people.

So with some of the young, gifted and Black struggling just to get out of high school, and with those who made it out stopping at bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the pressure is on those Black people with .

doctorates both to maintain what scholars such as Franklin have established while at the same time enticing their like-hued brethren to follow suit.

***The academy is no joke, though. Dr. Marla Frederick earned her doctorate in cultural anthropology from Duke in 2000. She’s now a Harvard University professor of African-American studies and religion, so the work paid off. And it indeed was work. She likens postgraduate school to the psychological drubbing associated with the pledging process of Greek fraternities and sororities. The sentiment wasn’t lost on those listening to Frederick’s remarks during a panel discussion. Members in the audience grunted and nodded in agreement.

“Postgraduate work is really about figuring out how to keep these conflicting selves together,” said Frederick, pegging her success both to her faith and a community of support. She said those things kept her grounded and helped her remember where she came from.

Frederick also said instructors such as Duke English professor Dr. Karla Holloway helped her realize she could parlay her interests in the human condition into a career in cultural anthropology. She realized that she could actually get paid to study, for example, the impact television preachers like T.D. Jakes have on folks.

It’s about investing in people, Frederick said. It’s about an established scholar nurturing a budding one. That’s what Holloway did for her. “Which is totally different from intelligence and capacity,” Frederick said.

But would-be scholars have to bring something to the table, and with the social and cultural capital among Black people arguably depreciating in recent years, it’s hard to blame those who hold a bleak view of the odds of finding Franklin’s potential successors, suggested Dr. Paul Hester, a Bowie State University professor of education administration.

Hester also argued that predominantly White schools like Duke and Harvard, which tend to protect the interests of the White community, only hire those Black people willing to stick with the university line. So all of the talk at this symposium about getting more Black scholars through hiring and about retaining current Black faculty is moot until such conferences are focused on what the majority already has found to work so well for them, he said.

“We study ourselves,” Hester said. “White folks don’t let you
study them.”

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