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Published in Print: March 17, 1999, as Conference on Black Youths Focuses on Urban Schools

Conference on Black Youths Focuses on Urban Schools

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Washington

Conference on Black Youths Focuses on Urban Schools

Educators and policymakers discussed education policies affecting African-American children and explored strategies to make positive changes for all children at the local, state, and national levels at a recent public-policy conference here.

The opening dialogue at the two-day conference--sponsored by the National Black Child Development Institute Inc.--highlighted some of the major problems that plague urban schools, where most students are members of minority groups.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, the keynote speaker, focused on what he views as the inequity in funding of urban districts. He voiced particular concerns about the "Ed-Flex" expansion bill, which would allow all states greater flexibility in complying with Title I regulations.

"There's nothing to suggest that the states will pick up [the slack], if the rules are relaxed," the Pennsylvania Democrat said. Title I, the largest federal program for K-12 education, provides extra financial aid to districts with large proportions of poor students. Mr. Fattah noted the numerous lawsuits nationwide challenging the inequity of school funding in urban areas. And, he said, "these are in states where they are required to provide an equitable free education to everyone.''

For example, he pointed out that in one suburban district, Radnor Township, per-pupil spending is $15,000, compared with Philadelphia's $5,700.

Mr. Fattah favors a federal mandate that states end such disparities. His proposed Equal Protection School Finance Act would require states to create school finance systems that would equalize per-pupil spending.

"Children need an equal start," he said. "It's time for the federal government to provide some protection for our students."

Also at the March 4-5 conference, U.S. Rep. Major R. Owens, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Education Braintrust, and the Rev. Floyd H. Flake, a former congressman from New York, spoke about how politicians are responding to education.

"The public wants the government to help with public education," said Mr. Owens, D-N.Y. But, "we are wimps on education [matters]." The lawmaker said there was a lot of talk in Congress about accountability, but not much discussion about obvious problems that children in poor districts face, such as studying in an unsafe and unhealthy environment.

In New York City, Mr. Owens said, hundreds of schools still burn coal to heat their buildings, teachers complain about respiratory problems, buildings are dilapidated, and school roofs leak. "We need to take care of the obvious problems first," he said. "We need to put pressure on our elected officials."

But Mr. Flake, the founder of the Allen Christian School in New York City, said that waiting for Congress to make changes means running the risk of losing another generation to failing public schools. Even now, he said, "the dollars that are available are not significant enough to make a change."

A proponent of publicly financed school vouchers, Mr. Flake, a Democrat, said that raising expectation levels for students and preparing teachers better are critical to helping children learn in urban areas.

In another session, Adelaide L. Sanford, a member of the New York state board of regents, suggested that teachers need to feel a connection with students if they want to see academic success in urban schools. If they don't, she said, teachers will have low expectations for their students.

"There is no reason that children aren't learning, except that they are not being taught," she asserted. "We must hold teachers to standards before they get into the classroom." She also added that ethics and morality need to be taught in schools.

Ms. Sanford studied low-performing schools in New York state from 1991 to 1994 and found that 95 percent of such schools were in New York City. Among the common characteristics that she found in low-performing schools were: a majority of teachers without certification; no updated textbooks; buildings in disrepair; and low expectations for students.

--Karen L. Abercrombie

Vol. 18, Issue 27, Page 14

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