I am always glad when a grass roots organization takes a stand for improving public education for children. I am especially glad when such an organization seeks help for young black males who, as a group, are in dire straits on all measures of academic achievement.
One such organization in Pinellas County is Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, a coalition of 38 churches, mosques and synagogues. Founded in 2004, FAST has become known for its annual "Nehemiah Action Assembly." At these events, leaders ask public officials to answer tough "yes" or "no" questions while committing to support specific policies of community concern.
A focus of Monday's gathering was an attempt to persuade superintendent John Stewart and School Board members to adopt "direct instruction." FAST leaders argue the program would improve reading scores. A 2010 report found Pinellas had the lowest graduation rate for African-American boys in the nation. The 20 low-performing schools are in neighborhoods that have high percentages of black students who receive free or reduced-price lunch.
Before the meeting, I telephoned the Rev. Robert Ward, a leader of FAST's education committee. I sensed that the organization unfairly places all the blame on our schools for the dismal performance of African-American boys. Knowing that School Board members would be on the hot seat, I wanted to know if FAST ever requires black parents and other guardians to answer yes or no to questions about their direct involvement in their children's learning.
The answer was no. Ward said his committee only listens to the concerns of black parents and grandparents. He said they work with other organizations that deal with parenting issues.
That is unfortunate and misguided, I suggested. FAST, although well intentioned and successful in some areas, needs to establish a take-no-excuses effort that focuses exclusively on involving black parents in their children's learning both at home and at school. Otherwise, everyone's time and resources are being squandered.
Years of research consistently confirm that the parent is the child's first and most effective teacher — especially during the early years. A British study indicates, moreover, that on average young children who read and are read to at home in addition to reading at school perform better than peers who read only at school. FAST should convene a Nehemiah assembly at least once a month and ask black parents yes or no questions.
Below are some questions I crafted from research by the Michigan Education Department. Parents who cannot answer yes to each question should never blame anyone but themselves for their boys' problems.
• Have you established a daily family routine that provides time and a quiet place to study, assigning responsibility for household chores, being firm about bedtime and having dinner together? Yes or no?
• Do you monitor out-of-school activities, set limits on TV watching, check up on your children when you are not home and arrange for after-school activities and supervised care? Yes or no?
• Do you model the value of learning, self-discipline and hard work, communicating through questioning and conversation and demonstrating that achievement comes from working hard? Yes or no?
• Do you express high but realistic expectations for achievement, setting goals and standards that are appropriate for your children's age and maturity, recognizing and encouraging special talents and informing friends and family about successes? Yes or no?
• Do you encourage your children's development and progress in school, maintaining a warm and supportive home, showing interest in your children's progress at school, helping with homework, discussing the value of a good education and possible career options and staying in touch with teachers and school staff? Yes or no?
• Do you encourage reading, writing and discussions among family members, reading to your children, listening to your children read and talking about what is being read? Yes or no?
I can almost guarantee that parents who answered yes to these questions have boys who do well in school. Parents who genuinely want to learn how to get involved in their children's learning can easily do so by visiting the Pinellas School Board's website, pcsb.org. Click on the "Parents & Students" link. I was amazed at the wealth of helpful programs available with the click of a mouse. Parents who do not have computers at home can visit a nearby public library.
Here is my Nehemiah-style question to FAST members: Will you all establish no-excuses parent-involvement assemblies to encourage black parents to become responsible for their children's learning — starting at home?
Yes or no?