Leave no school behind

by Mary Lord

Frederick Douglass called it the "pathway from slavery to freedom." W.E.B. DuBois considered it "the most fundamental" of civil rights, while Malcolm X hailed it as "our passport to the future." African-Americans have always understood the importance of education. Yet finding the best learning environment for our children in the current era of school choice has become an increasingly tough--and often frustrating--assignment.

The options have certainly grown. Today about two thirds of Black students go to public schools in their neighborhoods, while almost a quarter attend ones they choose, including magnet programs, charter schools, out-of-boundary transfers and other public options. The federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires school districts to publish annual "report cards" on their performance and provide tutoring or transfers from low-performing schools, gives families additional ammunition for finding the right academic and social fit. And the newly updated Individuals With Disabilities Education Act gives parents more power--and schools more money--to help evaluate and serve students with special needs.

But making the most of these options means parents have to be pickier--and pushier. Los Angeles tax attorney Shannon King Nash, for example, says she has earned "close to a Ph.D." tracking down support and therapies for her 6-year-old autistic son. The bottom line: Parents have to do their homework to know what to look for in an effective school as well as how to work with a school that doesn't quite make the grade. All over this country, visionary principals, gifted teachers and community activists are partnering with parents to help children flourish in our schools. We profile three of them on these pages and tell you how to empower yourself to get the best education for your child.


NATASHA MULLEN, 33, Cofounder, Seaford Parents for the Education of African-American Kids (SPEAK), Seaford, Delaware

HER STORY: NaTasha Mullen joined the Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) at her children's school to have a greater impact on their education. But the mother of four quickly concluded that selling cookies "wasn't the involvement I was looking for." So Mullen, who lives in Seaford, Delaware, volunteered in the classroom.

Not long after she began, her training as a clinical psychologist helped her recognize a few telling signs of trouble. Juwan, 11, her second eldest (shown with Mullen), kept stumbling over simple questions about concepts he had mastered at home. "I knew he knew the answer," Mullen recalls. "I was almost ready to jump out of my skin to answer for him." After some testing, an audiologist confirmed that her son was hard of hearing on his right side. Additional testing revealed a "central auditory processing disorder," meaning he had difficulty understanding or acting on verbal instruction.

HER SOLUTION: Rather than flounder in the special-education bureaucracy, Mullen decided to work on improving the process for her child and the many others in their school system. She, along with her husband, Julius, a middle-school basketball coach, and three other parents and educators, cofounded a support group, Seaford Parents for the Education of African-American Kids (SPEAK), in April 2004. Their goal: to boost parental involvement and raise achievement. Cooperation, Mullen believes, opens more doors than confrontation.

THE RESULTS: SPEAK met with the school district to point out the federal mandate to improve achievement and, instead of demanding action, asked how "we" were going to raise scores. Their pitch focused not just on low-income and Black kids but special-education students as well. The approach worked: the school district supports SPEAK'S mission, and the group now hopes to use school facilities to launch a Saturday academy to provide mentors and remedial instruction. SPEAK also encourages parents to get involved by making contact with teachers every two weeks, whether by phone, E-mail or note, to talk about their child's progress and behavior issues rather than wait for problems--and tempers-to erupt. Mullen understands how intimidating the jargon of the school system, as well as facing off with teachers and administrators, can be. When issues inevitably arise, she advises parents to "take a notepad and pen to meetings at the school. Have questions ready and write down what people say. Let them know you mean business." Mullen also keeps a teacher-conversation log in a notebook, where she jots down the time, date and content of each call.

Although SPEAK is just under a year old, Mullen already sees a warmer school climate for African-American and special-needs students in her school district. She also feels more in sync with the teachers of her 13- and 9-year-old children. (The baby, age 4, is not yet in school.) Mullen, who "didn't have a very positive experience in school," says she is proud of how well the group is catching on. "It's as if they were just waiting for someone to ask."

HELP FOR CHILDREN WITH LEARNING DISABILITIES * National Association for the Education of African American Children With Learning Disabilities (aacld.org): Offers education and support for parents of children with learning challenges. * Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (chadd.org): Advocates for individuals with ADD/ADHD.


MONTRELL GREENE, Ph.D., 30, Superintendent of Schools, Cleveland, Mississippi

HIS STORY: Faith moves mountains. It can also budge a failing school system. That's what happened in July 2003 when Montrell Greene, a reform-minded superintendent of schools faced the daunting mission of turning around the East Jasper school district in Heidelberg, Mississippi, which included a high school rated among the state's ten worst. "An egregious number of kids functioned at a low level," Greene recalls of the 1,225 mostly poor Black students in the system. Teen pregnancy, truancy and other social issues compounded the challenge of raising achievement. So did low expectations, lack of resources, narrow-minded administrators and inexperienced teachers, Greene says. "Communities get the schools they demand," he believes. But as far as he could tell, no one was demanding much at all--not from parents, students or educators. "We needed a grassroots effort," Greene concluded. "We not only had to change the school--we had to change the whole culture." Trouble is, Greene says, poorly schooled parents may not see how a good education can open doors.

HIS SOLUTION: Greene drew up an action plan for seven immediate improvements--including a new literacy program, after-school tutoring and teacher training--and presented it to the community in every forum imaginable, including homes. He launched a media blitz and got sermon time in local churches to preach the value of education. He likened improving East Jasper schools to rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, brick by brick. He noted that college-educated workers earn $1 million more over a lifetime than those with no degree. "That alone was an awesome motivator," he says. His overall message: Accountability does not stop with the superintendent; everyone has a part to play in raising achievement. As momentum built for reform, Greene introduced parent contracts. Mothers and fathers pledged to check their child's homework at least twice a week, see the teacher at least once a month, volunteer ten to 25 hours a year, and guarantee the child would show respect to all adults at all times. It was a controversial move. "Look, Superintendent," one parent told Greene, 'I want to do my part, but all I have is a sixth-grade education. How can I be expected to help with homework?" Greene's answer: "You don't have to solve algebraic equations," but you can convey the importance of education by [CONTINUED ON PAGE 196] just asking about schoolwork. As Greene notes, "Parents and teachers have to be on the same page." The relationship can be uneasy, he says, "but you have to work together to accomplish a goal, which is student achievement."

At the same time, Greene reached out to local businesses and church groups, which responded by donating more than $3,000 to the school. The money helped provide teachers with small cash grants, reward top readers with free meals, and fund such reading initiatives as the principal's Book of the Month program. When data showed seventh and eighth graders were at greatest risk of failing, Greene established a school within a school to boost student contact with teachers and classmates. He brought in a curriculum specialist to align the instruction with state standards, doubled the time spent on reading and math, and provided after-school programs for the biggest strugglers--and a bus to take them home.

THE RESULTS: After less than a year on the job, Greene could point to a number of improvements. PTA membership had doubled by fall, with 40 percent of parents joining. More middle-school students were achieving straight As. And test scores improved just enough to lift the high

school off the state's underperforming list. Yet Greene has had people fighting him every step of the way. He found himself in a political maelstrom last year when he tried to have the high school's longtime principal removed. And finally, last April, the board handed Greene his walking papers. Students flooded local news stations demanding his reinstatement. Parents protested. Though the firing was a blow, Greene is proud of what he accomplished. "We galvanized a community," he says. "We left a good road map for the kids."

Today Greene, who is studying to be a minister, is working the same magic in the college town of Cleveland, Mississippi, a wealthier district with 12 schools. He continues to preach the value of education at local churches. (Sample sermon: Get Your G.E.D.--God, Education and Dream.) This time, though, he works political channels as diligently as the parents. He says it's been a valuable life lesson.


Learning While Black: Creating Educational Excellence for African American Children (Johns Hopkins University Press). The author, Wayne State University professor and early-childhood educator Janice E. Hale, charges the establishment with miseducating Black kids. Among her suggestions: educational-aid societies that, much like legal-aid societies, go to bat for parents and students in need.


PATRICIA LONG TUCKER, 54, Principal, Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, Washington, D.C.

HER STORY: "Show me a good school, and I will show you a good principal," wrote Roland Barth. founding director of Harvard University's Principals' Center, in his book Run School Run (Harvard University Press). Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, a diamond in Washington, D.C.'s rough and troubled public-education system, certainly qualifies as top-notch. Its 406-strong, mostly low-income, almost exclusively Black student body far outscores most of the city's 19 other public high schools, and students go on to attend top colleges. As the visionary at the helm, veteran educator Patricia Tucker has made it her mission to raise the bar even higher. As Tucker told the hiring committee six years ago, "If it's not broken. I'm not going to fix it. I'm just going to improve it."

HER SOLUTION: Studies indicate that the biggest predictor of college success isn't high test scorns but taking the most challenging courses available. So Tucker increased the number of Advanced Placement courses and electives offered at the school and instituted a rigorous European diploma program called the International Baccalaureate, which requires passing a demanding battery of exams by writing extensive research papers in several subjects. "I want to create as many opportunities as possible for our students so they can explore and challenge themselves as much as possible," Tucker explains, She has also used her knack for fund-raising to forge corporate partnerships. Honda North America sponsors the school's It's Academic TV quiz-show team, while the local offices of international law firm Holland & Knight supports several school programs.

THE RESULTS: During her tenure, the school has built two new science labs and revamped the computer lab. And almost two thirds of the 23 students who chose to pursue the International Baccalaureate diploma have passed, a remarkable first-time success rate, The rest missed by a point or two. "I believe these students can do anything else can do," Tucker says. "The only ingredient--you need is to believe it. The kudos really belong to our kids."


Picky Parent Guide: Choose Your Child's School With Confidence (Armchair Press). Some 20 million American children change schools each year. In this comprehensive guide, school-choice experts Bryan C. and Emily Ayscue Hassel cover everything from the importance of "fit" to questions for parents to ask when they visit schools.

A Change for the Better

How to make the most of the school you've got

Research shows that children with involved parents do better in school. As these tips prove, it doesn't take much to jump-start the relationship:

GET AN EARLY START. Communicate the importance and joy of learning by reading to your toddler. Discuss pictures in magazines. Have books on the coffee table. Choose a high-quality, child-centered preschool that encourages exploration while building social and academic skills.

GET TO KNOW THE TEACHER. Don't wait for midterm conferences to drop by the classroom, advises Theresa Cooper, a room from South Central Los Angeles who runs a support group for parents of special-education children. She communicates with her son's teachers regularly in writing by way of a spiral notebook. "You have to work with the teacher," she says. "They don't have to be the enemy." If the teacher isn't right for your child, however, use the chain of command--first the principal, then the superintendent's office--to transfer your youngster to another classroom.

GET INVOLVED. Showing up at school signals how much you care about what goes on there. So when you can, chaperone field trips. Join a committee. At the very least, monitor homework. Asking your child what she did in class that day signals that you're paying attention.

GET HELP. The No Child Left Behind act requires states to provide tutoring, transportation and other enrichment for students in chronically low-performing schools. Tight budgets mean parents may have to push for such services. Or, if you can afford it, hire a tutor.

GET POLITICAL. Sometimes you have to join the system to change it. Ron Price, a parent in Dallas, got so fired up about Black children's being left behind in city schools that he ran for school board at age 29 and won. In a few short years he has helped transform failing schools by forcing principals to pledge to improve achievement in front of TV cameras. "It's tough love, but it was needed," he says.


Some tips from educators, parents and other experts: Do your homework. "Parents should spend some time getting the facts," recommends Gerry House, who heads the Institute for Student Achievement in New York. For starters, she says, read the report cards that federal law requires each school district to publish. Available online, these school snapshots contain such valuable information as test scores, graduation rates, teacher quality and other key details to help assess and compare quality. Also check the curriculum, which should contain rigorous courses.

Roam the corridors. "You can tell a lot about a school just by walking around," says Bob Chase, author of The New Public School Parent: How to Get the Best Education for Your Elementary School Child (Penguin). Do you hear happy sounds, or is it too noisy to think? Chaotic hallways are a bad sign. So are bare walls and stale displays of children's artwork.

Visit classrooms. "Make some observations--are children talking with each other and allowed to compare and contrast, or do they sit there taking notes and doing repetitious drills and worksheets?" House asks. If not, the school isn't setting high standards.

Check the culture. How teachers "incorporate the culture and identity of students" in their instruction is crucial for Susan Goodwin, coauthor of Teaching Children of Color (RTA Press). Black children should "see themselves in the literature and curriculum," she says, not just on posters during Black History Month.

Quiz teachers. Ask what the teacher's expectations are for her pupils. Talk about aspirations, and ask how he or she would support a child like yours.

Weigh the extras. A rich assortment of extracurricular activities--study halls, drama and labs, not just athletics or day care--is another hallmark of excellence, as is extra help for strugglers.

Mary Lord is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Should Your Child Be Tested for Special-Needs?

Here's how to tell, and how to get help

The route to diagnosing a child with special needs can take parents through a gauntlet of pediatricians, psychological evaluations, legal research and support groups. To get your child what she or he deserves, follow these suggestions:

Trust your gut. The school psychologist told Nancy Tidwell, a business owner in Columbus, Ohio, that her son, then in elementary school, was "just a little disorganized" and lazy. But she suspected a learning disability. Tidwell found a private psychologist to do an evaluation, which confirmed her suspicions. That experience led her to create the National Association for the Education of African American Children With Learning Disabilities (aacid.org).

Get an outside evaluation. School districts sometimes steer parents to a few handpicked psychologists who will pinpoint only those disabilities for which the system can provide services, Find a private psychologist who's trained to evaluate learning disabilities--and be prepared to fight your health insurer or school district to cover the cost.

Know your rights. Special-needs students have the federal right to a quality education. For most, that entails the school's developing an individualized education plan, or IEP, for delivering speech therapy, untimed tests or other accommodations. The recently reauthorized Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) strips away some bureaucratic barriers, allowing families and educators to forgo formal meetings each time they need to tweak an IEP. Visit the Harvard Civil Rights Project online at civilrightsproject.harvard.edu for more information. Seek support. There are a host of national and grassroots advocacy groups accessible on the Web that help parents fight for special-ed services.