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Keith Can't Spell 'Know'

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Weigand Avenue School in sunny Southern California is much like any other elementary school in the slums of Watts, site of South Central Los Angeles' atrocious riots and the most poverty-stricken area in the city. The demographic profile of the 400 students Weigand serves is shifting dramatically in ethnicity from African-American to Hispanic. Tonight there is no debris in front of the hovels on 103rd, Gorman, and Weigand, streets that embrace the school. Parents carrying infants and containers of fried chicken, greens, and enchiladas amble across the campus. Few sirens from police cars on Alameda Avenue are heard. There will be no fights among Mrs. Jones' robust sons who live across the street and watch out for the school. It is back-to-school night, and the community shows its respect.

I am the principal of Weigand Avenue. Olivia Greene and her son, Keith, approach me. Keith, a 7-year old, is the spitting image of Jonathan Kozol's "Cliffie" in the book Amazing Grace. Keith's mother, a dark-skinned woman with intensely indignant eyes, shows me a poem Keith has written, titled "Getting to No Me." It reads:

When you
Get to no me
You will see
That I be
Good to you
If you be
Good to me.

"Keith can't spell 'know,"' Mrs. Greene tells me in a voice so agonized that other parents turn to listen. "Keith can't spell 'know.' I buy him new shoes. I send him here to you," she goes on. "He never misses school. You tell me Keith needs something, I get it. I send Keith to school. And he can't spell 'know."' Then, without warning, she asks, "Why?"

That was two decades, thousands of books, articles, research papers in professional literature, and a myriad of excuses ago. Still, minority children in poor communities continue to be the least well-served by the nation's schools. A mother asking why America abandons her child is something you don't forget; you feel ashamed that you have no answer.

Research findings suggest that to this day there is no useful system in teacher training institutions and in-service programs in schools that provides teachers with practical paradigms for teaching poor minority children. Tell that to Olivia Greene. Dinesh D'Souza's recent 700-page book, The End of Racism, with its 2,000 footnotes, claims that African-Americans are noncritical thinkers. Let Mr. D'Souza share his outlook with the parents in Watts. Explain the difficulty of attracting experienced or even substitute teachers to South Central Los Angeles. List the victim-blaming terms used to justify the country's disregard for the families in Watts.

Minority children and their families deserve open and nonjudgmental answers, and educators must find ways to provide them. Decisions made by policymakers after debating issues like race and diversity might be more responsible if the arguments took place in the communities, homes, and languages of families struggling to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table, and children safe from drive-by shootings. The press blames parents; professional literature sends the message that a lack of parent involvement is the main reason for poor schools in poverty areas. Clearly, parent participation is critical, but schools must offer meaningful agendas framed in the context of parental values. Universities must design training programs to assist prospective teachers in respecting the goals and resources of families who live in these areas.

During a discussion between parents from my school and student-teachers from the University of California at Los Angeles, the students registered surprise that many parents from Watts had a formal education and were able to intelligently articulate their views. When asked by the university students why they didn't "get out of South Central," the parents vehemently explained their interest in cleaning up--not leaving--their community and its schools. Alice Sweet, a celebrated community advocate and friend, better known in Watts as "Sweet Alice," said this: "We don't want to have to take our children over the hill and to the Valley to get quality education. We want quality education right here."

Teachers must understand that families in impoverished areas are fervently interested in the education of their children, whether or not these parents frequent the schools. Some parents can't speak English, or are reluctant to interfere in school business. Others work and may only attend evening functions. Many families feel patronized or "dissed" by school staff members. One mother related to me her belief that teachers use louder tones of voice when speaking to minority students. Another said staff members either explain every little concept or use educational jargon parents don't understand. A parent who claimed school meetings were a waste of time described them as events where educators impress each other by discussing "how many grains of salt are in a bowl of sugar." A father who spoke no English complained that some Hispanic parents spend hours listening to conversations they can't understand, since many schools have no interpreters.

The immediate task, then, is to strengthen the schools. It is essential that the nation's entire education community sharpen its commitment to that task. All procedures and rationalizations that deny some parents answers to why their children do not receive the same educational opportunities that other people's children enjoy must be confronted.

No single program will solve the problem. No quick fix. It calls for the latest research on appropriate teaching strategies; early, intensive, indepth instruction; and more capable teachers to provide that instruction. It calls for an honest reaffirmation of the conviction that every child in this country deserves to be given a chance to learn.

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