Bill Maxwell

Only one African-American in Pinellas' elite class

How in the world can there be only one out of 44?

It is disheartening that only one African-American student in Pinellas County graduated in the district's elite group of 44 valedictorians and salutatorians.

That lone high achiever is Latesha Johnson, salutatorian at Lakewood High in St. Petersburg. All blacks in Pinellas County who earnestly care about black children should be concerned, if not ashamed.

In last Sunday's Neighborhood Times feature, "They rose to the occasion," the valedictorians and salutatorians were asked to give their "parting thoughts" by answering five questions.

Two of the questions caught my attention because the answers reveal the major sources of the students' achievement. The students were asked to discuss the "secret" to their success so far, and they were asked to identify the one person who has influenced their lives.

To the first question, the majority said that hard work, motivation and determination were their secrets. I'm quoting a few responses that I think express traits that all students, especially blacks, should internalize if they wish to achieve in school.

Mikel Graves, 17, Boca Ciega valedictorian: "The secret to my success is hard work and persistence. I always ensure my work gets done thoroughly and on time, no matter what."

Mollie Wilfert, 18, Dixie Hollins salutatorian: "My secret to success has been dedication, perseverance, sacrifice, prioritizing and time management."

Bryan Emory, 18, East Lake co-salutatorian: "The essential secret to my success so far could not be attributed to anything other than good old-fashioned hard work and determination."

Elda Agastra, 18, Largo valedictorian: "My secret to success so far is simply working hard and giving my all to everything I do."

Sankar Kannusamy, 18, Palm Harbor University valedictorian: "Always aiming above and beyond what I hope to achieve so that I never fall short of my goals."

Too often, as research shows, high numbers of black students castigate their black schoolmates who work hard and who act appropriately in the school environment. They are accused of "acting white."

I'm not suggesting that this is the definitive reason that we have only one black student in Pinellas' elite class. But I do want people to think about it.

To the second question, most of the students cited one or both parents as being their major inspiration. The students' respect and gratitude stand out.

Min Jang, 19, Boca Ciega salutatorian: "My dad, Jin-Soo Jang, has been the most influential person in my life. While working hard to pay for my education in the U.S., he's been constantly supporting my decisions and personal development with my coming of age for the past seven years. His bold and strong yet generous character is something that I admire and pursue, and his advice and personal stories never cease to inspire me."

Helen Virginia Moscardini, 18, Countryside valedictorian: "My parents have been a great influence in my life. They always stressed the importance of hard work and a good education. More than that, however, they encouraged me to greater heights than even I thought myself capable of achieving. I am very grateful for their continuing support."

Nicholas Stephen Karay, 18, Tarpon Springs salutatorian: "My parents raised me with good morals and strong life values. They have really influenced my life and made me the man I am today."

Again, I'm not surprised that most of these high achievers credit their parents with their drive to succeed. A child's first and most important classroom is the home.

All too often, large numbers of black students come from dysfunctional, single-parent households. Out-of-wedlock births may not be a problem unto themselves, but evidence shows that this factor alone can start a chain of failure. One finding is that these children are less likely to succeed in school. When we speak of the "achievement gap," we primarily mean black children. They are suspended and expelled more than any other group; their graduation rate is low; and high numbers don't attend college.

We blacks should be worried that only one of our children graduated in Pinellas' top class. We should face up to our shared complicity and earnestly work to help more of our children achieve academically.

While the titles of valedictorian and salutatorian may be ceremonial, they recognize academic achievement and are powerful indicators of the degree to which parents nurture, teach and prepare their children.

Only one African-American in Pinellas' elite class 06/11/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 14, 2010 7:36pm]

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