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A 'Collaboration': Urban League Gains Quiet Reform Role

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Leesburg, Va--The National Urban League's two-year-old campaign to collaborate with local school officials on reform strategies is already producing tangible results, leaders of the group and some 50 big-city school superintendents said at a meeting here this month.

School leaders from such systems as Dade County, Fla., Rochester, N.Y., and Seattle acknowledged at the meeting that their local Urban Leagues had played a significant role in fostering the political atmosphere that made adoption of major school-reform plans possible.

National Urban League officials hope that these successes can be duplicated in other cities. They see their local affiliates serving as catalysts for change and builders of bridges between school districts and the increasingly minority population they serve, rather than engaging in the confrontational tactics often employed by groups critical of the schools.

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The black community has to make a long-term commitment to do what is necessary to ensure that our children's educational achievement levels equal and exceed those of others," John E. Jacobs, president of the National Urban League, told conference participants.

"And the way to do that," he added, "is not by school-bashing or turning education reform into a political football, but by working with our children, their teachers, their schools, and responsible government bodies to get results."

Mobilizing for Reform

Although the league has developed a wide variety of tutoring, counseling, and other programs for minority students since adopting a five-year education initiative in 1986, it is the group's efforts to foster political support for reform that may be most significant in the long run, those gathered here suggested.

The Urban League of Rochester, for example, has led a communitywide effort to improve the city's school system. The campaign now has the support of more than 70 other local organizations.

The league's activities have included a number of public "speakouts'' and town meetings that have sought to focus public awareness on school problems and galvanize support for change.

Those efforts helped set the stage last year for adoption of the city's path-breaking teachers' contract, which offered teachers dramatically higher salaries in exchange for greatly expanded responsibilities.

School officials in Dade County also credit efforts by their Urban League affiliate for laying the groundwork for recent reforms.

The Urban League of Greater Miami is assisting directly in one of the district's experiments with school-based management. Known as the Partners In Education project, it is currently operating in a high school and its feeder schools.

"We weren't the catalyst for this, they were," said Joseph Fernandez, superintendent of the Dade County Schools. "They came to the board, and they said, 'Hey, we've got to do something dramatic here, we can't do more of the same."'

The league's coalition-building work also helped foster public support for a recent contract giving Dade County teachers major pay increases and a new role in helping to direct school improvements.

"There was no hue and cry, there were no bad editorial comments about that contract, there was no chamber of commerce special meeting about that contract, because there's an attitude in the community that clearly supports that we have got to have the best teachers possible in this complex system," said T. Willard Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami.

"The key is that it is non-educators who are making the demands," he said.

"It's those of us who don't benefit from the increases who said, 'That's the right direction,"' he added. "If it was just internal, then most of us would say, 'Well, I'm not going to buy that--that's self-serving."'

A Bottom-Up Initiative

The national initiative itself is a product of the sort of bottom-up or4ganizing that Urban League affiliates are now promoting in city school districts.

Several affiliates that had already become involved in school issues pressed the national organization to make education one of its top priorities.

William Johnson Jr., president of the Urban League of Rochester, is credited with providing the leadership for education reform both in his home city and in the national organization.

"The traditional power centers have little vested interest in urban public schools because they don't live in the city, or they send their children to private schools," he said, "so it is critical for organizations like the Urban League to take a leading role" in school-improvement efforts.

Urban League members also see close up how inadequate education is clouding the futures of minority youth, the leaders said.

"Most of the dysfunctions that we see in our clientele," Mr. Johnson said, "can be traced back to a poor education, negative school experiences, or a denial of equal educational opportunity."

Urban Leagues in several other cities have also begun to mobilize support for restructuring urban schools.

"When we saw how easily that could be accomplished" in Rochester, Mr. Johnson said, "our objective became to get every one of the 112 affiliates involved in a similar kind of campaign."

Cooperation Pledged

Most affiliates, however, are still in an earlier stage of the reform process. They are concentrating, the national leaders said, on raising public awareness about the need for improved student performance and about the importance of parental involvement.

More than 70 school superintendents have signed a formal "memorandum of cooperation" with their local Urban League leaders. The agreement calls for cooperative efforts to improve schooling for black and other minority students.

"We recognize that unless a significant effort is made now to accelerate the academic achievement of black youths, and to provide them with the tools and skills needed to compete in a changing world, ... the prospects for a hopeful and rewarding future for young blacks will be dim, resulting in increased social and economic costs to society in general," the agreement states.

At the same time, more than 90 affiliates have become involved in providing direct services for minority students, their parents, and the school staff that serves them.

The Urban League of Canton, Ohio, for instance, uses funds from the federal Job Training Partnership Act to train teachers' aides. The league's other school-related activities include "Responsive Parenting" classes and the Project for Academic Excellence, which provides Saturday classes in mathematics, science, and language skills.

The Houston Area Urban League Education Initiative has established "Centers of Excellence" in target schools with high concentrations of minority students. The centers offer tutorial programs and counseling support, as well as cultural enrichment activities for both parents and students.

Chicago's Urban League serves as the coordinating agency for the "Beethoven Project," which is designed to provide comprehensive social services to families in a public housing project. Its goal is to prevent developmental delays among young children.

The Chicago affiliate also operates a basic-skills instruction center serving 125 potential dropouts. In addition, it is currently helping to create 50 academic-assistance centers in black churches.

Corporate, Foundation Support

The national organization and its affiliates have enlisted outside help for their initiative from a number of sources. Corporate and foundation grants to the program have already reached $1.4 million.

The meeting here, and a similar one two years ago in which the collaborative approach was launched, were sponsored by the Xerox Corporation. That company's chairman and chief executive officer, David T. Kearns, has been a prominent advocate for disadvantaged children.

The Educational Testing Service has conducted a series of workshops for local groups, providing them with information on guidance and counseling, college admissions, financial aid, and the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has assisted the campaign by helping several affiliates strengthen student performance in mathematics and science.

The initiative also has received support from the U.S. Education Department, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and other national organizations.

"We've learned a lot and will continue to learn more about the problems and how to solve them," Mr. Jacobs said.

"But at the same time," he added, "we're climbing the learning curve--we're amassing the experience and skills to make a quantum leap in our effectiveness."

Still, officials of the national organization say they are realistic about how much they can accomplish.

"At the end of the five-year initiative, we expect to see some measurable results," said Mr. Johnson of Rochester. "But we don't think the situation will have turned around, because the problems are too entrenched to solve that quickly."

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