Commentary

Minority Pupils: Why Wait Till They Fail?

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Over the past three and a half years, members of the National Urban Coalition staff have been visiting predominantly black and Hispanic urban schools and consulting with parents, community and business leaders, college and university officials, and political representatives. Through an ad hoc consortium of urban superintendents and the opportunities office of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, we in the coalition have also come to know some of the trailblazers who are attempting to reduce the disturbing gap in achievement between minority students and their age peers--particularly in mathematics, science, and technology.

In the course of these consultations and through reading every potentially useful report or publication we could find, we have come to some conclusions. Among them:

• Unless things change dramatically, the persistent shortfall in access and achievement in science literacy and in reading and writing proficiency for youngsters most at risk will not appreciably diminish--and may grow worse--over the next 10 to 15 years.

• The current focus on remediation at the secondary-school level will come too late for tens of thousands of students. These students would benefit greatly from enriched learning experiences that begin in preschool and continue at every level through the high-school years.

• There is already strong proof that seriously involving low-income minority parents-- and the communities and institutions of which they are a part--in genuine partnerships with schools can have strong, positive effects on the motivation and learning of their children.

• There already exist, or are in the making, networks of groups, individuals, and programs (such as the University of California at Berkeley's ''Family Math" program and the Yale Child Development/New Haven Schools model) that can be tapped to reduce the need for reinventing the wheel in our efforts to help minority youngsters.

• Enlightened state and local governmental and business leaders, augmented by role models and mentors (including celebrities and older students), can do a great deal to help schools alter the culture that in too many instances influence poor minority students to place a low priority on learning and the attendant values that support it.

Little of this is new; some of it may be called into question. But as I tried to point out in a recent Ebony magazine article aimed mainly at black parents, organizations. and community leaders, the fire bell is already ringing in the night. Unless it is heeded, there will be even fewer qualified teachers, scientists, and self-sufficient, contributing citizens among that 40 percent of our college-age population that blacks and Hispanics will constitute in 1995.

Information on both the gravity of the need and the possibility of addressing it more effectively is compelling.

Blacks and Hispanics in the early grades are taking fewer of the basic courses necessary for developing the skills, study habits, and content knowledge required to excel in science, math, and technology in the intermediate, high-school, and college years. To make matters worse, their enrollment in college is declining, in part because of cutbacks in federal aid to education.

We know that black and Hispanic children are closest to their white age peers in their earliest years and that, given half a chance, these children are eager and responsive learners. But we also know that the learning gap widens in every year after kindergarten. By almost every measure, the roots of failure take hold long before thousands of minority youngsters have dropped out or been pushed out of high school--or emerge with virtually worthless certificates or diplomas.

A new breed of urban school superintendents and principals is using the resources of school staffs, students, parents, and business and community leaders to produce not only hard-won changes in attitudes and perceptions, but also solid, measurable improvements in achievement.

A great many more of us must do our part by challenging the validity of ringing rhetoric about a stronger, more competitive America in the 21st century--rhetoric heard at a time when school bonds continue to be rejected; when the number of scholarships and the amount of other college aid to minority students fall woefully short of the need; when teen-age parents are not provided assistance that would make it possible for them to complete their schooling, without which another generation of dropouts or ill-educated, dependent young people is virtually assured.

While the Ebony article I referred to was designed to remind a particular group of stakeholders of their special responsibilities, the unexpected response from other quarters has encouraged me to believe that not as many Americans as is generally thought have given up on the potential of the public schools and of the children those schools are most likely to continue serving.

With the help of a Carnegie grant, the Urban Coalition is now attempting to join others in mobilizing minority parents and communities, educators, and concerned citizens of every background. We aim to establish a national clearinghouse to strengthen and increase promising local initiatives--and to build state and national support networks for better public education

It would be foolish to underestimate the difficulties on the path ahead, including inertia and teacher shortages in the lower grades, the tendency to seek cheap "quick fixes" in education, and a prevailing climate not particularly hospitable to undertakings in behalf of those who are believed to be largely responsible for their own unhappy condition. Nor can there be any question that a truly serious effort will demand considerable costs for all concerned: costs in time, energy, money-and in changing, sometimes painfully, the current state of what James Comer of Yale University calls the "educational ecosystem."

But the alternative is a much higher price that over the decade ahead will be paid by the children most at risk, by their families and communities, and by the rest of the nation, which cannot be insulated from the economic and social consequences of failing to develop a critical component of America's human capital.

In saying "yes" to the future of poor and working-class minority youngsters, we will be making a crucial down payment on the future of the total society.

Vol. 05, Issue 22, Page 24

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