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Coming to the Defense of Black Students

When school systems recognize that many of their Black students are falling behind, they frequently bring in consultants to help right the situation. Often that person is Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu.

Kunjufu should be a very familiar name to educators and African-American parents. He is the founder and president of African American Images, a Chicago-based publishing company that also sponsors dozens of workshops for educators and parents.

He also is the author of more than 30 books, including Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys (2004), 200+ Educational Strategies to Teach Children of Color (2009), Raising Black Boys (2007) and Restoring the Village, Values, and Commitment: Solutions for the Black Family, all published by African American Images. Kunjufu holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Illinois State University and a Ph.D. in business administration from Union Graduate School in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“Normally,” Kunjufu said in an interview, “school districts bring me in to ‘fix the bad Black students.’ They either bring me in because there is a problem with low test scores because of disciplinary issues or suspensions.”

“The assumption from the superintendent or the principal is that there’s really nothing wrong with the environment (within the school),” he added, “and especially in a school district where in the good old days — five, 10, 15, 20 years ago — when the neighborhood was predominantly White, those same teachers were very successful with White middle-class students, so it has to be something wrong with these students.”

However, the message he delivers — the students don’t need fixing, but the schools do — is not the diagnosis that educators generally are comfortable hearing. His starting point is clearly stated in the title of his latest book, There Is Nothing Wrong with Black Students, (February 2012), $15.95, African American Images, ISBN-10:1934155608, ISBN-13: 978-1934155608, pp.128.

The author repeats this title theme throughout the book, which discusses his findings from research about or visits to more than 3,000 public schools in low-income African-American neighborhoods.

These are schools in which most students are performing above national averages. Ample documentation exists to demonstrate that African-American students nationwide on average perform well below White student averages on numerous indicators.

Educators and other consultants often prefer to blame under-performance of Black students on “cultural deficits,” Kunjufu said.

“If educators believe the achievement gap is racially driven, then they give themselves a pass,” he writes in the book. “After all, what can they do about the race of the child? If educators believe that our children are at risk and disadvantaged, then they feel justified in their low expectations.”

While schools cannot do much about students’ lives outside the classroom, Kunjufu argues that they can do better with the time and resources they have during the school day to provide quality education and produce successful students.

“What I have done over my career is that I have challenged teachers, ‘Should we in an educators workshop look at parents for what they are not doing between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m.?’ ” Kunjufu said. “Or should we with the existing people in this room, ask ourselves, ‘Is there anything we can do better between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.?’”

Kunjufu does not let parents off the hook, either. In the book, he advises them to start early to prepare their children for school, emphasize high expectations and provide a structured home environment conducive to learning — with more books and less television.

His main message to educators, however, is, given the right circumstances in school, Black children can learn, even excel, even if they come from and go home every afternoon to the worst circumstances.

“What I did with this book is to show that, in spite of being Black, and the mother single, and low-income, and the mother lacking a degree, and lack of books in the home and computers, that there were over 3,000 schools in those same neighborhoods that produced African-American students well above the national average, ” he said.

“Even in ‘low-achieving’ schools,” he continued, “how do we explain that we have two fourth-grade teachers, and one teacher has his or her children well above the national average and the other teacher doesn’t?”

His prescriptions for change emerge in the portraits of the schools profiled in his new book; among them are Urban Prep Academy (Englewood) in Chicago, the Eagle Academy in New York City, Capital Prep Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., and Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tenn.

Kunjufu summarizes elements that make a difference as strong leadership from school supervisors, effective teachers who care, culturally relevant curriculum, single-gender classrooms, lessons tailored to learning styles and more “time on task.”

That requires efficient use of class time with fewer interruptions or distractions and more school days or hours.

“There is no question that some serious problems still persist,” Kunjufu said. “In spite of all of that, I am still optimistic that we can make a difference, and I see it being done in these 3,000 schools.”

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