Bridging achievement gaps

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A day before presidential hopeful Barack Obama pushed his education agenda at T.C. Williams High School, Senior National Public Radio Correspondent Juan Williams was also there, addressing many of the same issues. Williams keynoted an education forum last Saturday initiated by Mayor William D. Euille.

The theme of the day was bridging achievement gaps between home and school, teachers and students, white and minority students, wealthy and impoverished students, parents and public officials and to engage all parties involved.

Williams speech emphasized the role of educators and parents in the countrys larger social fabric. This is not the father knows best 1950s school population, Williams said. This is a different population, with different demands and different expectations, requiring different solutions from you as educators.

Euille said the forum was not an attempt at fixing a broken school system, but improving a good one. At the end of the day I hope we create awareness of the accomplishments made and the challenges we face, he said.

The four-hour event featured city officials, parents and teachers, and color-coded discussion tables, each with one of five discussion prompts: student engagement, academic excellence, positive youth development, school readiness and youth speak (i.e. what youth can do to address education issues).

School Board Vice Chairman Charles Wilson called education the great equalizer for those in poverty and echoed Hillary Clinton’s sentiment that it “takes a village” to educate a child.

Helen Morris, a parent of a pre-schooler in that proverbial village, said she wants to send her child to her neighborhood school, Jefferson-Houston Elementary, but worries about its low performance rate. I would be poor parent if I sent my child to that school right now, Morris said.

Jefferson-Houston is the only elementary school in the system not fully accredited.

The elementary schools population the citys least diverse is predominately black with a high concentration of lower class students, resulting from a 1999 redistricting that swept nearly a third of the citys public housing into the Jefferson-Houston attendance zone. About 81 percent of students at Jefferson-Houston receive a free or reduced price lunch.

Morris wants her daughter to grow up in a multicultural atmosphere, but she said redistricting has segregated the school and, simultaneously, city officials have focused on physical renovations of the building rather than educational renovations for the students. Morris came to nudge them, she said.

The small group worked really well, Morris said. “I think the topics were timely and relevant.

Parent and Operation H.O.P.E. co-founder Lenny Harris said he attended the forum to find out how the School Board was improving the city’s schools. He agreed with others that parental involvement is paramount, but he wanted to see the citys resources utilized better, and hear less lip service.” 

I felt some good vibes, Harris said of the discussions. But were going to have to pull together.

The discussion groups presented their topics to the forum, most of them enthusiastic about their findings, which centered on cooperation among parents, teachers and officials to improve students performance. 

The discussion points will be compiled and formatted, most likely on the school system’s web site, as touchstones for the community and city officials, the city’s Human Services Director Debra Collins said.

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