African-American students can achieve academically as well as anyone else. That truth too often is lost in the din of bad things in the news about young blacks and their schools.
Two recent events offer inspiring examples of black students excelling beyond the expectations of other people.
The first example is the achievement of an individual. During its 168-year history, the University of Notre Dame has never had a black valedictorian until now. Katie Washington, 21, is Notre Dame's first black valedictorian.
She grew up in Gary, Ind., and attended the city's public schools except for her junior year when she attended a boarding school. At Notre Dame, she majored in biological sciences and earned a 4.0 grade-point average.
This fall, she moves on to Johns Hopkins University, where she will start an eight-year joint M.D.-Ph.D. medical science program. Johns Hopkins awarded her a $500,000 fellowship and a stipend for housing and living expenses.
Those are the achievements. But what motivated her? This is what she told the valedictorian selection committee: "I let them know I came to Notre Dame with the hope of pushing myself to my fullest potential. I just wanted to do well on every assignment and every exam. I wanted to be the best I could be every day because I'd been given a great opportunity to be here."
Washington understands that to benefit from opportunities, great and small, the individual has to invest a lot of hard work and make personal responsibility a way of life. She made no excuses. She succeeded with sheer determination and her natural intelligence. She respected the opportunity Notre Dame had given to her.
All black students in the United States on every college campus should internalize Washington's words.
In Chicago, there is another remarkable story of black student achievement at all-male Urban Prep charter school. There, all 107 boys in the first graduating class have been accepted to a four-year college. Theirs is a stunning achievement because just four years ago, as freshmen, a mere 4 percent of these boys were reading at grade level. This is not surprising because they were brought up in the tough Englewood neighborhood on the city's South Side, where failure and death were all around, where many people, including some of their former public school teachers, had written them off.
Urban Prep, which I have visited, is successful for a host of reasons, some tangible and some intangible.
On the tangible side, administrators extended the school day, adding 72,000 minutes per year; implemented a double period of English; and required public service and extracurricular activities.
The intangibles are just as important. Tim King, the school's founder and CEO, has a firm grasp of black culture, its weaknesses and strengths. He established an environment that attempts to remove the weaknesses and capitalize on the strengths. Four of these strengths are the schools "four R's": ritual, respect, responsibility and relationships. Many of the teachers are black males, a phenomenon not seen elsewhere in Chicago schools. Staff members address the students formally by their last names, and the students wear coats and ties.
Urban Prep, with roughly 450 students, has one reason for existing.
"Every single adult in the building — from the director of finance that handles payroll to the CEO to all the teachers — has a very clear understanding that our mission is to get students to college," Kenneth Hutchinson, the director of college counseling, told the Christian Science Monitor. "We start the freshman year. It's not about helping them fill out applications. It's about building strong applicants."
Everyone says the school's excellent teaching makes all the difference. The teachers have been compared to missionaries. They treat the students like their own children. They are available after school each evening and on weekends. Many students come from broken homes, some never seeing one parent or the other, and their teachers and administrators are their first male role models. As cliche as it sounds, the school is their family.
Although King and his staff are proud that their entire first graduating class is college-bound, they know they cannot rest. Their task now is to make sure each student graduates from college. Most students have done a college summer program, and they have been assigned counselors to help them navigate the first few years of college.
If anyone fails, it will not be because Urban Prep or their colleges failed them. They, as individuals, now must push themselves to their fullest potential to take advantage of the opportunity they have been given.