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K-12 Improvement Center of UNCF Summit

While a college education is vital to achieve great lengths in the workplace and in life, the quality of time spent in the classroom years before determines whether a person will excel in higher education.

This school of thought was deeply expressed during the second annual United Negro College Fund Education Summit: Transforming K-12 Education- Leadership, Innovation and Collaboration, held this weekend in Pasadena, Calif. The summit — which was conducted in conjunction with the Evening of Stars, honoring Smokey Robinson and Nancy Wilson — focused on issues and solutions pertaining to low-income minority students, particularly African-Americans across the nation. 

Panelists included Ann Best, executive director for Teach for America; Darryl Cobb, chief learning officer for the KIPP Foundation’ Dr. Henry Tisdale, president of Claflin University; Lata Reddy, vice president of the Prudential Foundation, the summit’s sponsor; and Hill Harper, actor and author of Letters to a Young Brother.

One issue which was heavily addressed was the lack of positive role models for African-American male students. Call Me Mister, a program spearheaded at Claflin University in South Carolina, is designed to recruit more African-American males in choosing a career in elementary teaching.  The program has seen great success since 2000, Tisdale says.

“If you go into the schools, you will see how scarce the African-American male teacher is,” Tisdale says, adding that the men who do become teachers are, indeed, ahead of their class. “These young men are passionate, and enthusiastic about classroom management.

“We can be successful if the effort is there to influence who teaches in our schools,” he says.

Harper added that creating a buzz that “teaching is cool” will also entice young Black men to choose education as a career.

Tisdale continued to note the value of collaboration between communities, local K-12 schools and historically Black colleges and universities to move forward with research, becoming “think tanks” to establish even more successful recruitment programs and teacher retention programs.

The panelists discussed the notion that while parental involvement is needed to succeed academically, raising the bar in teacher quality is paramount.

“The perception alone is that parents from low-income families don’t care,” Best says. “I can tell you I have never met a parent who never cared about their kid. I’ve met parents whose lives are complicated, and deal with issues of poverty and are busy working to survive, so checking on their student’s homework wasn’t at the top of their list of priorities.”

Best adds that when parents hand their child over to the public school system, they trust that teachers would teach them correctly, and prepare them for a successful academic career.

Retaining students’ interest in learning is a hard enough issue to combat, says Cobb, from the KIPP Foundation, a network of public schools serving under-represented minority students, mostly African-American and Latino children.

“We realize that these students come from a place where they will get a medal if they even show up for class,” he says. But combating that problem is addressed through creating a culture of healthy self-esteem and character building, which KIPP does promote.

Cobb sees the transformation in the students’ thought process as they evolve from a fifth grader, to an eighth grader, and how their mind molds from thinking in generalities to specific goals.

“For example, when I ask a fifth grader what he wants to be when he grows up, he might say ‘a lawyer.’ That’s a great answer, but when I ask him in the eighth grade, he’ll say, ‘I want to be a civil rights attorney, eventually I want to be a judge and then eventually I want to serve on the state supreme court.’”

With that response, Cobb says, “It blows my mind.”

One method of maintaining a child’s interest in learning is to mold them into a well-balanced individual, who enjoys all subjects, including the arts. But with educational cutbacks in the art and music programs, this is a serious problem, says Smokey Robinson, who has supported UNCF for 50 years and Nancy Wilson, recipient of the Founder’s Award during the Evening of Stars.

“I’m an advocate of the arts being put back in schools, because those types of activities gives the kids something else to have on their minds, rather than video games,” says Robinson.        

Wilson, a grandmother of four, says she is dissatisfied with the current state of the K-12 education system, and says children are not being socially integrated.

“We need music back in schools. We need art back in schools. How can you be a well-rounded person, without having a well-rounded education?” she says. “I understand the need to have math and science specialists, but I would like to see a happy child.”

Stimulating a child to go forward and excel in primary education, whether it depends on the quality of the teacher, the types of educational programs, or the amount of parental involvement are requirements for a student to be well prepared to excel in and complete a college education.

“The spirit of the conference was changing the conversation from all the things that keep us from being successful in educating low-income children of color, and changing it to what is working, and how to multiply it,” says Best.

– Molly Nance

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