Parents, not schools, failed African-American children
Who's responsible for educating a child?
On its face, this is a simple question. But when we factor in the race of the child, the question becomes one mired in, among other forces, blame, anger, recrimination, self-aggrandizement, history, myth, politics and, of course, litigation.
All of these forces are converging in Pinellas County as the School Board and its attorneys prepare to do battle with Guy Burns, the attorney representing a plaintiff class composed of 20, 000 black children currently attending and who will attend Pinellas schools.
The plaintiffs claim the schools failed to adequately educate black students in violation of Florida law and the state Constitution. Indeed, black students in Pinellas schools consistently score below all other groups on all standardized measures, dubbed the achievement gap, and they have the highest suspension and expulsion rates.
Popularly known as the "Crowley case, " this class-action lawsuit is named for black parent William Crowley. It was filed in August 2000 by Crowley on behalf of his son, Akwete Osoka, then a 7-year-old student at Sawgrass Elementary School in St. Petersburg.
According to the lawsuit, the boy faced academic problems "typical of those difficulties commonly faced by students of African descent." The lawsuit was filed during the time the People's Democratic Uhuru Movement faced obstacles in trying to establish its all-black Marcus Garvey Academy charter school. Crowley had enrolled his son in the Uhuru afterschool tutoring program, and he claimed the boy had begun reading above grade level as a result.
I have no doubt that this is a bogus lawsuit, and the judges who have permitted the case to go forward are patronizing and wrongheaded. They are blaming the wrong side for black children's failure to get a "high-quality" education.
Burns, now supported by a broad group of blacks that includes veteran educators, is blaming the schools for black students' abysmal academic performance. However, a 2005 study by University of Florida professor David N. Figlio and Princeton University professor Cecilia Elena Rouse argues that the moment black children in Pinellas come to kindergarten, they are not as prepared for learning as their peers. The study was commissioned by the Pinellas School District.
The researchers based their findings on precise data the district had collected as it tracked the 8, 400 students who entered kindergarten in 1989 through high school graduation.
Michael W. Kirk, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney for Pinellas schools, summarizes the study's major finding: "Whatever is causing the gap, it, by definition, is something that happened to these children before they set foot in a Pinellas County school."
Everything I know as a teacher and as a parent forces me to agree. Every classroom teacher I know agrees, and every mature, responsible parent I know agrees.
Too many blacks have relinquished their parental duties, a shameful neglect that forces public school teachers and administrators to become surrogate parents to children who have full-blown lives beyond the schoolhouse door.
A few days ago, a white middle school teacher told me that when she tried to speak with black parents about their children's unruly behavior, she faced hostility.
"I can't get through to the kids, and I can't get through to the parents, " she said. "What am I supposed to do?"
I did not have an answer. But I know this much: For sure, the courthouse is not the answer.
I have seen many children born and reared in poor, single-parent households who perform well academically and who do not get suspended or expelled from school. More often than not, these children have caring adults who participate in their intellectual and social lives.
Such adults know the home is life's anchor. They do not wait for strangers to do their job.
Last week, I went to the St. Petersburg Times' archives and read everything that has been written about the Crowley case since it started in 2000. The best thing I read was is the eloquent letter from Margy Kincaid, a high school teacher in Palm Harbor, published this March 28. She discusses the achievement gap in Pinellas schools:
"The achievement gap is bridged in early childhood by the parents, by how cherished the children were, how their questions were answered or how often they were read to at night. It is bridged by how committed the parents are to their education and the value it holds. The children's behavior control starts in early childhood with the way their discipline has been handled by the parents.
"Public school teachers, and administrators and guidance counselors, for the most part, jump through hoops to help these children catch up and learn anger-management and see to it that they get food, clothing or even basic hygiene products. But without the backing of parents the job is next to impossible.
"Graduation rates will not improve, school violence and vandalism will not decrease, the gap will not be bridged until we get the parents to buy into the 24/7 responsibility that began when they created the special and unique individual who is their child."
Guy Burns, the Crowley case attorney, needs to listen to Margy Kincaid and her colleagues instead of listening to parents who fail their own children long before the children enter kindergarten.
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