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Don't Underestimate the Role Community Plays in Education
Just mentioning the term school reform will open a floodgate of familiar suggestions: Reduce class sizes, end social promotions, raise graduation standards, reform curricula, expand preschool programs, create charter schools, upgrade the caliber of teachers - and the list goes on.
But Hugh B. Price, former president of the National Urban League, says that while those ideas might be good, we are overlooking perhaps the most effective component of school reform: more community involvement. And he doesn't just make that pitch - he shows us how to do it.
I covered Price's tenure at the National Urban League in the 1990s, and I was always impressed that while other civil-rights leaders grabbed for headlines, Price preferred difficult issues unlikely to put him in the spotlight.
One such issue was education. After leaving the Urban League, Price has continued as an education reform advocate and recently wrote a book titled Mobilizing the Community to Help Students Succeed. In an insightful and readable book equally useful for educators and community organizers, he provides the right mix of examples and research studies to bolster his arguments.
His central argument is: "Communities should motivate youngsters to take school seriously and strive to achieve, and should celebrate them when they do. This culture of achievement augments the efforts of engaged parents and helps fill the void created by parents who are not involved."
Price launched a Campaign for African American Achievement at the National Urban League and allowed local affiliates to devise their own ways of rewarding achievement.
Most affiliates celebrated September as Achievement Month, sending a message early in the school year that success was important. Enlisting other groups, they organized back-to-school parades, dinners, county fairs, block parties, and other events to celebrate academic achievement. Students were presented with certificates, legislative proclamations and, in some cases, money.
In Mount Vernon, N.Y., Superintendent Ronal Ross wanted to improve reading in every elementary school. So he announced that every student who read at least 50 books a year would get a free bicycle. The students had to submit a book report on each book.
"Ross originally figured that the number of winners would be modest enough that if he and and members of his cabinet bought several bikes, that would be sufficient," Price recalled. " . . . To his surprise, nearly 170 students completed at least 50 books. Another 520 read between 40 and 49 books. The top scorer was a black boy in the 5th grade who had read 82 books. The runner-up was another 5th-grade black boy who had read 81 books. All totaled, over 1,600 youngsters read 25 or more books that year."
Ross relied on the business community to help him purchase more bikes.
"All of us want positive reinforcement," Ross explained. "These kids are going to be reading long after they stop riding a bike."
It is also important to encourage students who may never be at the top of the class.
"In K-12 education, schools typically recognize and reward the top achievers in any given category, whether for academic accomplishment or community service. This tradition is perfectly understandable," Price observes. "The trouble is that students who are struggling academically or disenchanted with school may perceive those traditional forms of recognition as utterly out of reach.
"Recognizing this, some schools opt to celebrate a broader array of accomplishments. As one Florida principal whose school follows this practice puts it, 'I believe that all students need to be motivated, and when you only recognize the A students, you have lost a group of students who think they can never be recognized. . . . We have students set individual goals for reading, math and writing. When they meet their goals, they are rewarded for their work.' "
A California principal said such an approach is "a way to reward individual students for reaching their potential, not surpassing others."
The role the community plays in education should never be underestimated.
"Children do indeed pay attention to values and norms transmitted by others," Price writes. " . . . Because young children aren't yet adept at self-appraisal, they tend to rely on others' opinions to create their own judgments of confidence and self-worth."
Communities can play a powerful role in helping students reach their potential.
George E. Curry, former Washington correspondent and New York bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, was editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine.
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