Summit: Make education everyone's
Leaders offer ways to reduce illiteracy, joblessness,
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
"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
"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
Dr. Claud Young, national chairman of the board of the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had a simpler
"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?"
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
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."
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
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
"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
"They should talk about children who get picked on and made
fun of for the way they talk, for the way they look," she
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
You can reach Margarita Bauza at (313) 222-2069 or
You can reach Jodi S. Cohen at (313) 222-2269 or