The black community must launch a grassroots movement to close the achievement gap between black and white students and revitalize urban schools, civic and education leaders said here last week.
At what was billed as a leadership summit on the state of black education, held by the National Urban League and Howard University, organizers hoped to get such work under way.
Their goal was to start drafting a national agenda to address the academic progress of black children, who rank below white and Asian- American students on most state and national tests.
The Urban League, which launched the Campaign for African-American Achievement in 1997 to heighten the importance of doing well in school, is proposing to focus on early literacy as the second phase of that effort.
“The goal is to go beyond the reactive role,” said Vinetta C. Jones, the dean of the education school at Howard University in Washington. “We intend to put the education of black students on the front burner. We can’t allow equity to slip from the focus on standards and achievement.”
Presidents of local Urban League affiliates, teachers, superintendents, ministers, and politicians participated in the Dec. 3-5 gathering, where they discussed such subjects as special education, technology, and teacher recruitment.
Hugh B. Price, the president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League, said the organization’s role in the classroom is to unite the community—from parents to business owners—to confront disparities in learning between black students and their Asian-American and white classmates.
The National Urban League is a New York City-based nonprofit organization dedicated to helping African-Americans achieve social and economic equality.
“We know that a lousy education leads to economic apartheid,” Mr. Price said.
By emphasizing reading for elementary students, he said, the group is hopingp that children will be better prepared to succeed in secondary school and beyond. Students who enter middle school not reading on grade level, he noted, constantly have to play catch-up.
“We’re placing our children on the engine from day one,” he said, “so they will never have to ride in the caboose.”
Rather than complain that academic standards and related tests aren’t fair, said James T. McLawhorn, the president of the Columbia (S.C.) Urban League, the organization is trying to work to close the achievement gap and raise black children’s test scores.
“What you see here are African-American people being proactive,” he said of last week’s meeting.
The achievement campaign, which also involves the Congress of National Black Churches and other black faith-based, civic, social, and professional groups, established the National Achievers Society, an honor society for black high school students. Communities held rallies and other special events to emphasize and celebrate the importance of academics.
More than 16,000 students are members of the society, and more than 140,000 students have attended achievement events across the country since the program’s inception.
Mr. Price said he wants to tap into the campaign’s momentum to provide black parents with the tools needed to help their young children learn to read. His goal is to have reading guides and books available to parents at places around their communities, from churches to barbershops.
“We feel we are the foot soldiers to get the job done in the community,” said Peter Adams, the national president of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, a historically black organization for college and professional men dedicated to service and scholarship.
Scholastic Inc., a New York City-based publisher of children’s books, has joined the National Urban League effort by donating 50,000 books. Together, they plan to develop a parent’s guide to early literacy.
Karen Proctor, the director of community and government relations for Scholastic, said even though early literacy has gained attention in education circles, all parents haven’t gotten the message. The Urban League can be a conduit to get the information to those parents, she said.
In New Orleans, the Urban League affiliate has a tutoring program and an effort that encourages parents to read to their infants.
“Our kids will be stuck at the bottom and remain at the bottom unless they get over that 4th grade hump,” said Edith Gee Jones, the president of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans.
A similar project in Miami will open 55 reading centers next year that will match trained reading tutors with students.
“We’re not in education,” said T. Willard Fair, the president of the Urban League of Greater Miami. “We are the catalysts to make sure those in education do the right things to close the gap.”
In addition to those efforts, Paul L. Vance, the superintendent of the District of Columbia schools, said the black community needs to stop accepting the mediocrityof education offered in urban schools.
City residents need to get angry, he said.
“Folks in the suburbs would not tolerate this,” Mr. Vance, the former superintendent of the suburban Montgomery County, Md., schools, said during a panel discussion.
Joining Mr. Vance in a discussion about urban superintendents, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the chief executive officer of the Cleveland public schools, said the community must be informed about school reform efforts. While politicians may prefer backroom deals, she said she makes decisions under the public’s watchful eyes.
Still, she said she recognized that making the tough decisions that are necessary to turn urban schools around could be risky.
“I’m always prepared for somebody to tell me that I don’t have a job,” she said. “You’ve got to be ready with your toothbrush.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as Early Literacy Focus of Urban League Efforts