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Black Educators' Group Strives For 'Visible' Role in Policy Debate

Charles D. Moody Sr. had hoped it would come to this.

The National Alliance of Black School Educators, which he started 28 years ago with a dozen African-American superintendents, is now a forceful national advocate for black students and educators.

Nearly 4,000 school administrators, teachers, and representatives from an array of education groups attended the organization's national conference here Nov. 14-19. With plans to move into a new headquarters in Washington, purchased last year, the organization is now 7,600 members strong.

But, even as NABSE continues to grow in size and stature, its mission remains the same, says Mr. Moody, a former superintendent of schools in Harvey, Ill.

"It must be of service, and make a difference to African-American people," he said. "If we do things that don't improve the life of African-American people, then we haven't done what is necessary."

For the new generation of leaders, that translates into trying to close gaps in academic achievement between black students and their white peers, attracting more blacks into teaching, and addressing financial and other resource inequities in predominantly minority schools.

The group is also using a recent $110,000 grant from the Council for Exceptional Children to study the disproportionate number of African-American students in special education.

"We want to sensitize people that this is a problem and that it many not have to be," said Lois Harrison-Jones, the president of NABSE and a former superintendent in Boston.

Meanwhile, Andre J. Hornsby, the chairman of this year's national conference and NABSE's president-elect, said the group would keep a high profile with legislators.

"We want to be visible," said Mr. Hornsby, a former superintendent in Yonkers, N.Y. "When you talk about education and black children, we're there."

Throughout the conference, presenters and participants took advantage of the opportunity talk freely about the specific needs of black children.

"It's an opportunity to talk to us about us," said Elsie Perry Daniels, a senior assessment specialist with the test-maker Harcourt Educational Measurement, based in San Antonio. "We can't expect people to do for our children. We have to do it."

In her keynote luncheon address, Beverly L. Hall, the superintendent of schools in Atlanta, said black educators must have a sense of urgency about the plight of black students, many of whom are failing to reach their academic potential. Even with the movement for private school vouchers and charter schools, Ms. Hall said, the majority of black children will be educated in regular public schools.

Teachers need to look beyond the classroom as the national emphasis on high-stakes assessments continues to gather strength, others here urged.

During a session on testing, representatives from Harcourt Educational Measurement encouraged educators to become involved in the review and selection of individual questions and assessments.

While the company carefully monitors the tests it develops, black educators can help weed out potentially offensive and biased questions and reading passages before they are approved for use, said Shannon Henry- Robinson, a Harcourt assessment specialist.

She urged black educators to become more active and ask to join district and state assessment-review committees. Tests will become more inclusive, she said, as such committees become more racially diverse.

As a professor at Howard University in Washington, Wade A. Boykins knows what it means to have a captive audience. During the NABSE conference, however, he found out what it was like to be a captive speaker.

Mr. Boykins was more than an hour into his session on systemic approaches to improving student achievement when a conference official noted it was time for the crowd of about 200 to change sessions.

Clearly engaged by the unfolding presentation, one person said, "No, this is too important." Everyone seemed to agree. Seeing that no one was leaving, Mr. Boykins continued for some time.

He reviewed research that suggests black students are more likely to do well in classrooms where collaboration is stressed, in contrast with their white peers, who seem to excel in competitive and individualized classrooms.

Mr. Boykins also cited research that found black students were far more likely to try to please their teachers than were whites, who aimed to satisfy their parents. "Our children don't just learn from teachers, but learn for teachers," he said. "Teachers can make or break them."

He also challenged educators not to dwell on the perceived shortcomings of students, but to look at the skills students acquire to cope with tough surroundings.

"You are not here to comment on the negatives and positives of a situation," he said. "But you can look at skills, understand them, and capitalize on them."

—Robert C. Johnston & Karla Scoon Reid

Vol. 20, Issue 13, Page 12

Published in Print: November 29, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook
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