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Black parents laud school summit

Parents, organizers say the event gives key tools to addresses the achievement gap for black students.

MONIQUE FIELDS
Published October 3, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - Beverly Brown, one of several hundred black parents who came to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg on Saturday for a first-of-its-kind summit, had questions about the FCAT.

A lot of questions. Most were prompted by her 9-year-old son, a held-back third-grader she said she wants to see in fourth grade next year.

"I need to know exactly what to do to get him ready for the FCAT again," said Brown, a St. Petersburg mother of three.

She came to the right place.

The day-long "black parents" summit, sponsored by the Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, focused largely on the achievement gap, the academic divide that separates many black and white students in Pinellas County.

But its intended targets were black parents, whose involvement, experts say, is critical to narrowing the gap. The 300 or so people at USF were offered practical suggestions, exhortations and warnings about what's happening, particularly with standardized testing.

"We're the joke of the country," said Jawanza Kunjufu, a nationally known consultant and author of 22 books about black families and education.

Watson Haynes, an organizer of the event, said he was pleased with the turnout. He called it the beginning of a long-term process.

"This isn't a one-shot deal," said Haynes, a black civic leader and head of the Coalition for A Safe & Drug Free St. Petersburg Inc.

The task for all involved is formidable.

Earlier this year, the St. Petersburg Times detailed the dimensions of the achievement gap in Pinellas schools. Only 27 percent of the county's black students scored at grade level on the reading FCAT last year. That compares with 61 percent of white students.

The gap was even larger in math - 39 percentage points. The audience at Saturday's event included several School Board members, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and incoming school superintendent Clayton Wilcox.

Parents, though, were the stars of the show, and for a few hours they went back to school for their children. They took notes, filled out applications for educational programs and even registered to vote. Many had their children in tow. Some took advantage of the on-site day care provided so they could soak in the knowledge.

Cassandra Jackson kept her three kids by her side. She said she wanted them to hear what researchers say about black children and school.

Jackson, chairwoman for education for the local chapter of the NAACP, has navigated the school district well. Two of her children attend fundamental schools. The third attends the Business, Economic, Technology Academy magnet program at Gibbs High School.

"I came to support the initiative because education is the key," she said.

That became a familiar mantra as the day moved on. Wilcox said black students need to be in classrooms where there are teachers who look like them. When it comes to teaching, he said, equity is more important than equality because some children need more than others.

"We must give those children the more they need to be successful," he said, drawing a healthy round of applause.

Parents were encouraged to go to their children's schools and ask tough questions about the kids' education.

"You ... need ... to ... be ... involved," said Tony Langhorne, of the parental advocacy program, which works as a liaison between Pinellas schools and parents. "It's scary. It's difficult. Still, you need to be involved."

The reasons are simple, he said.

Children of involved parents earn higher grades, score higher on tests and attend school. But that wasn't the only advice offered to parents.

They were urged to empower themselves and their children. A small group of parents went through a series of exercises, deciding first whether they were more like placid lakes or raging rivers. Then they evaluated their lives to see if they strive for perfection or strength.

Jim Oliver, a consultant who led the workshop, stressed the importance of security and order in a child's life.

Della Abdullah, 45 and a mother of six, said she left the workshop with tools she thinks will help her children.

"I wish we had more time," she said. "I have a 13-year-old who is searching for himself."

Abdullah also came to see Kunjufu. He spared no one in his hourlong address.

He challenged teachers to think about education differently. He said he doesn't want teachers to look at their students and see low-income children from single parent homes, where the parent doesn't have time to be involved in their education. Teachers have no control over those issues.

He said teachers should raise their expectations for those students, allowing black children the same opportunity to respond to questions as their white peers and giving them the same amount of feedback.

There are two sayings he wants plastered all over schools: "Failure is not an option" and "Whatever it takes."

That means throwing out 30-year-old lesson plans and resisting the urge to assign black boys to special education classes.

Parents have a lot of work to do, too, Kunjufu said.

Asian children study for 12 hours a week, and white children study for 8. Research shows black children study for an average of four hours a week.

"Last week, how many hours did your children study?" he asked. "Do your children study more than they watch television? Do your children study more than they listen to music? Do your children study longer than they talk on the telephone? Do your children study longer than they play outside?"

He urged parents to have dinner with their children and follow it with an hour of reading.

Beverly Brown, the mother in search of FCAT knowledge, walked away from the seminar with ideas and inspiration. She said she has a better understanding of what the FCAT is about and how to help her son better prepare for the test. When she gets stumped, she now knows she can tap resources for additional help.

She gave the seminar good marks. "It was very worthwhile," she said.

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