School & District Management

Urban League Effort Targets Young Achievers

By Caroline Hendrie — July 14, 1999 6 min read
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When applying to college in the late 1950s, Hugh B. Price was determined to aim for the top. So he ignored a guidance counselor who advised him to shoot low, and wound up winning admission to such top-ranked schools as Harvard University and Amherst College, his eventual alma mater.

What Mr. Price knew then, and what he knows now, is that African-Americans can achieve far greater academic success than many people assume. It is a message he is taking to the nation, as he spearheads the Campaign for African American Achievement in his role as the president of the National Urban League.

His passionate belief in that message was clear here last month as Mr. Price inducted a batch of new recruits into the Thurgood Marshall Achievers’ Society, a centerpiece of the campaign. Conceived as a national honor society for black students from grades 3 through 11, the fledgling group has inducted more than 5,000 youngsters since the spring of 1998.

In a church filled with beaming parents and earnest-looking youngsters, Mr. Price urged them to spread the gospel to family, friends, and classmates that “achievement matters.”

“Let us send a signal out to the world that the days of undereducating our young people, the days of underestimating our young people, are over,” he said.

Determined To Succeed

High expectations have long held the key to Mr. Price’s own success.

Born in 1941 to a physician father and a mother who was active in the desegregation movement, he grew up surrounded by black professionals and academics in a neighborhood adjoining Howard University in Washington. This setting instilled in him not only a faith in the importance of education, but also a belief that he could fare well in the educational arena.

That faith served him well as he joined the first small contingent of black Washingtonians who entered previously all-white schools in the fall of 1954, months after the U.S. Supreme Court had declared the capital city’s segregated school system unconstitutional.

It also helped him shake off the discouraging words he heard after attending a special program geared to promising mathematics and science students before his senior year in high school. After taking a battery of tests, he recalled, “I was told that I could probably go to college, but I should not count on going on to professional or graduate school.”

Mr. Price gave the lie to that prediction in 1966, when he earned his law degree from Yale University. He then moved on to a varied and distinguished career in law, government, journalism, philanthropy, and civil rights.

Spreading the Gospel

Making such stories commonplace, by fostering a grassroots movement for black academic success, is the overarching objective of the achievement crusade.

“Vastly more of our kids can achieve at vastly higher levels,” Mr. Price said, and ensuring that they do so is more urgently needed now than ever before.

For one thing, he noted, the robust economy is opening new doors for blacks, but employers are demanding higher skill levels than in the past. Competition in college admissions, meanwhile, is growing keener for all students, and affirmative action programs are under attack.

Public schools are adopting tougher academic standards at a time when the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students on the one hand and white and Asian-American youngsters on the other has begun to widen again after nearly two decades of progress.

The achievement campaign, a collaboration between the Urban League and the Washington-based Congress of National Black Churches, is backed by a $25 million, five-year grant from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment, as well as funding from other private sources. African-American fraternities, sororities, and professional groups have also been enlisted in the cause. (“Establish an ‘Academic Bill of Rights,’” Feb. 17, 1999.)

One of the campaign’s primary goals is to spur black parents and community members to demand more from their schools, and to press harder for changes that will translate into better student performance.

The campaign has mounted an advertising drive in black-owned newspapers around the country. And it has designated September as “achievement month,” a period in which black clergy members are being urged to preach about the importance of scholastic accomplishment.

An Achievement ‘Gang’

Equally important is a drive to heighten expectations and support for students themselves. That’s where the achievers’ society comes in.

By serving as an “achievement gang,” the society is designed to counteract the low esteem in which academically oriented blacks, especially boys, are often held by their peers.

“The whole point of the campaign is to fly into the eye of that storm: negative peer pressure,” Mr. Price explained. “This has been a largely missing component of the education reform agenda.”

To qualify for entry, students must achieve at least a B average. Modeled on a smaller-scale effort pioneered in Florida, the society has chapters run by Urban League affiliates in 35 cities around the country. Society members will be eligible for a pool of up to $10 million in college scholarships that the campaign plans to underwrite with the Lilly Endowment grant.

Each new member receives a custom-designed jacket garnished with the society’s logo--a conscious echo of the gang-related garb and insignia that are fixtures in many inner-city neighborhoods. A highlight of the induction ceremony is the moment when the adults who are sponsoring the new members help them into their shiny black jackets.

The jackets were generally a hit with the 31 Jacksonville youngsters honored here in the June 26 ceremony, one of nearly three dozen such occasions taking place this year around the country. “It’s cool,” declared Victoria Hayes, 12, who said she would wear the jacket to the magnet school for gifted students she plans to enter in the fall.

Her father, Victor Hayes, was more interested in the less tangible benefits the society can offer his daughter, a straight-A student entering 6th grade. “Sometimes you can be the leader of your class and think you don’t have to try too hard,” he said. “She saw some competition out there today.”

Campaign Called Consistent

For the New York City-based Urban League, the achievement campaign is something of a departure from the 89-year-old organization’s traditional emphasis on jobs-related services to members.

“We’re out in a zone that we haven’t been in before, but we think the stakes warrant it,” Mr. Price said.

But the achievement crusade is familiar territory for Mr. Price, who came to the league in 1994. In his previous job as a vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, he was responsible for arranging large grants to support urban school reform.

The School Development Program, the reform model developed by James P. Comer of Yale University, and the Texas Interfaith Education Fund headed by community organizer Ernesto Cortes, were among those that benefited from the foundation’s largess thanks to Mr. Price.

Marla Ucelli, the associate director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s equal-opportunity division, who worked under Mr. Price, called him “a wonderful, visionary person” with a knack for “identifying powerful people and powerful ideas and putting them together.”

She said the achievement campaign “is completely consistent with what he has been about: supporting the development needs of African-American kids, but then challenging them to the same standards as we want for all kids.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 1999 edition of Education Week as Urban League Effort Targets Young Achievers


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