When I read two recent articles in the St. Petersburg Times (Teachers' fears addressed and Disrespect can pass as racism in class) about the trouble that black children are causing in certain Pinellas County schools, I was angry, ashamed and perplexed.
After further reflection, I became worried, perhaps afraid, for the future of low-income black children in public schools where they represent a significant percentage of the student body.
As the headlines suggest, some ugly things — totally unrelated to effective teaching and learning — are occurring in our schools. Mary Brown, the district's first elected black School Board member, said during an open meeting that many white teachers in south county schools feel intimidated by black students, especially males. Nina Hayden, the other black member of the board, suggested that many black males use school as a lab to hone their machismo.
According to the Times articles, one student screamed "f--- you!" at her teacher and called the same teacher a "white bitch." Another student refused to sit after her teacher asked her to do so, telling the teacher: "You don't belong here. This is a black school."
Such defiance and disrespect produce a culture of perpetual failure for everyone, students and teachers alike. Do not dismiss the significance of the fact that predominantly black Gibbs High had 42 teacher transfer requests last year, the highest number for a Pinellas school. Although black students account for 19 percent of the total enrollment, they represent 40 percent of all suspensions and more than half of all student arrests. And this is just the beginning of the return to neighborhood schools.
What causes these discipline problems? Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP and a former principal, told the Times that the problem is often "weak teachers." A shortage of black teachers as role models was blamed. Antelia Campbell, the principal of Gibbs, said that teachers need training to understand the community and culture from which their students come.
The list of rationalizations is long. I use the word "rationalizations" because any argument that ignores the vital role of parents is disingenuous. Given the severity of the problems with black kids in our schools, we should not attempt to rationalize our way out of reality and the truth.
A critical mass of research confirms that persistent and consistent parental involvement emboldens even so-called weak teachers. Other research confirms that teachers who do not have to confront discipline problems in class are freer to teach their subjects.
Research also shows that learning is most effective when students have been taught the intrinsic value and practical utility of personal responsibility in the school experience.
As an old black man born and reared in the Jim Crow South — where racial segregation was the law and a way of life — I do not understand what is so darned hard about the simple act of going to school to learn or why it is so tough for so many parents to get involved in their children's school lives.
While observing the hardships my parents, grandparents, other relatives and the vast majority of my neighbors experienced, I apprehended that one essential factor was missing for them: formal education. Few had graduated from high school, and none had attended college or earned a professional certificate. As a result, they and their offspring led mostly hardscrabble lives, enduring low-wage menial jobs, at the mercy of their physical environments and the whims of the people around them.
Even so, I was fortunate. My paternal grandparents, with whom I lived for several years, and my mother had come to appreciate the importance of a formal education, and they insisted that my siblings and I graduate from high school. They vowed to "work, borrow or steal" to help us go on to college if we wanted to. Four of us did.
Attending school was a sacrament in our home. We did not take this sacrament for granted, and we did not question its lifelong significance. We accepted it, and we had to be worthy of it. To be worthy meant being mindful of our individual responsibilities in the education process, especially as black children in a society hostile to our very existence — let alone being hostile to our becoming educated.
The classroom was a special place, a place of value, a place of choices and clear consequences. We understood the advantages of being courteous, polite, respectful, obedient, cooperative and hard working. All of this was second nature to us.
Those old people taught us that education was our passport to the future. They were right then. They are right today. This generation of blacks needs to learn this vital lesson and stop rationalizing the awful behavior and performance of our children. We rationalize at our peril.