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 Article of Interest - Detroit & Education

Summit: Make education everyone's business
Leaders offer ways to reduce illiteracy, joblessness, crime
by Margarita Bauza' and Jodi S. Cohen / The Detroit News / August 21, 2002

DETROIT -- As a parent and teacher, Valencia Grier has seen the problems of urban education from both perspectives.

"We need help," Grier said after listening to a powerful think-tank assembled in Detroit on Tuesday to address inner-city problems.

"What do we do when the children who come into our classrooms say, 'I need a meal'? said Grier, who teaches and has six children in the Detroit Public Schools. "I need to help my young black children."

There were no easy answers coming from the more than 30 national urban affairs and education experts assembled at Detroit's State Theatre. The one-day education summit was hosted by Wayne County Community College District and sponsored by The Detroit News and WDIV Local 4.

But the panelists agreed that community leaders need to develop joint plans to help solve the problems confronting urban education.

"Education is everyone's business. Our challenge is to create a mindset in which that is clearly understood and decision makers of all levels are willing to bring their individual and collective resources to bear on educating all segments of society," said Glenda Price, president of Marygrove College in Detroit and a member of the Detroit school board.

Reading programs at churches, universal early childhood education, better teacher preparation and equal funding for every student were some of the wide-ranging solutions the panelists suggested to help solve illiteracy, unemployment and incarceration that plagues Detroit and major cities throughout the country.

Dr. Claud Young, national chairman of the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had a simpler solution.

"Just cough up the money and then we'll solve the problem," said Young, who is also president of the Michigan SCLC, the final speaker on the problems in the nation's urban schools, including the high illiteracy rates that keep success an elusive goal for many of the country's minorities.

The high promise of the assembled experts left many asking questions that had no ready answers.

Dawn Hill, a Detroit parent who took her eighth-grade son out of Detroit Public Schools, told the speakers that she hopes to see more collaboration between the city's high schools, colleges and youth programs.

"They don't collaborate to make one whole effort to push our children forward," she told the speakers. "That's what we need ... When will we get that?"

Redefining education

The daylong summit was sparked by "The Cost of Segregation," a News' series in January that documented the heavy burdens that segregated living patterns create in Metro Detroit. The assembled panels focused on the history, economics and racial dimensions of urban problems, as well as specific discussions of the problems facing Detroit.

Some insisted that it's critical to acknowledge racism's role in today's urban problems.

"There's a deeply held belief that racism is over, that it isn't here, that 'I didn't do it,'" said Princeton University professor Nell Painter, a noted historian and author on race.

Painter said more historical research and writing on the role of racism will help promote understanding of its part in depressing America's cities.

Racism may have caused or contributed to the problems, but "eliminating racism doesn't solve it," said Omar Wasow, the executive director of a leading African-American Web site called BlackPlanet.com.

Wasow has seen too many failing public schools where children don't learn to read and administrators spend too much time focusing on diversity instead of teaching a child how to "write a beautiful sentence," he said.

A staunch supporter of charter schools, he equated the public school system to the telephone company, calling it a "vast bureaucracy that doesn't care about my problems."

"You can't legislate motivation or passion," he said. "If we want our kids to succeed, the real revolution exists in redefining public education."

Detroit Kettering High School teacher Elsie Finner said it was one of the most powerful ideas she heard Tuesday.

"He hit it on the head," Finner said. "The educational system has to be restructured."

'No-excuse approach'

In Detroit, the community is too focused on who is in charge of the school system instead of what is being taught in the school system, said Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

"The focus is not on student achievement. The focus is still on how this system is run administratively. And in order to have quality education, all of us have to be engaged," Kilpatrick said, speaking in part to members of the audience who regularly protest the state-led takeover of the district at board meetings. "It is not time to go and protest everything."

Detroit schools chief Kenneth Burnley said the district is working to develop programs for students at every grade level. The district has opened thousands of spots for all-day pre-kindergarten students and is developing a program for high school students to take classes at Wayne County Community College.

"We have to take a no-excuses approach that we have to teach all our students to read on grade level and compute on grade level," Burnley said.

Parents, many at the summit agreed, simply must be better prepared and more involved.

Harvard's Alvin Poussaint, a noted author, psychiatrist and respected social critic, said parenting skills are an essential part of education.

"All schools should teach courses in child development. Some of us do not have any knowledge about what children need," he said. "The better the parenting, the stronger and more resilient our children will be."

Detroit student Jakiah Keaton, 15, said she was most impressed with the words of Dr. Shashi Tharoor, the undersecretary general for Communications of the United Nations, who stressed educating urban girls.

"An educated woman is an educated family," Tharoor said. "We can do nothing better than educate girls."

A need for action

Gloria Flores, 17, a senior at Holy Redeemer High School in Detroit, said she wished speakers would have focused more on peer pressures.

"They should talk about children who get picked on and made fun of for the way they talk, for the way they look," she said.

Still others believed the program was a good start.

"What I liked about the conference is the focus on youth," said Robert Fleming, 18, a graduate of Northwestern High School who is attending Tuskegee this fall. "A lot of people give up on us."

U.S. Rep. John Conyers cautioned that ideas developed during Tuesday's session will be worthless unless the community turns them into actions.

"If we don't go out of here with at least one or two issues we have to develop," Conyers said, "then we haven't done our job."

You can reach Margarita Bauza at (313) 222-2069 or mbauza@detnews.com. You can reach Jodi S. Cohen at (313) 222-2269 or jcohen@detnews.com.

 

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