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Don't just automatically blame schools

Parents often ask themselves what went wrong when facing a crisis with their children. Among African-American families, the problems are many. In order to address some of the issues confronting African-American youth, parents should be adequately informed of ways to develop and enhance positive self-images and discipline.

Poverty and racism are often mentioned as major reasons for failure, but they are also reasons many successful African-Americans have accomplished their goals in life. Dennis Kimbro, author of Think and Grow Rich: A Black Choice, was quoted as saying: "Racism is constant, but _ and this is a big but _ it shouldn't be offered as an excuse not to succeed."

Too often, parents rely on the school system to totally educate their children. In reality their peer group, movies, television and music are the educators. I have been the program coordinator for the Operation PAR/BETA Prevention Program for almost nine years. During that time I have met more than 400 African-American families from southern St. Petersburg. The BETA Prevention Program is designed to concentrate on helping "high risk" middle school children in the areas of self-awareness, interpersonal skills, social decision making, individual and group counseling, academic tutoring and leadership skills development. The program also offers services to the youths' family and teachers.

The majority of youth enrolled in the BETA Program are failing in school. Parents are quick to blame the school system for their children's failures. But when questioned about their involvement with their child's school, 90 percent say they have never attended a scheduled PTSA meeting, and 90 percent have never requested a meeting with teachers or school administrators about their child's academic progress. Studies have shown that public schools do an adequate job of educating youth when there is parent support.

Could busing be the problem? African-American parents must travel great distances to get to some of the schools. Could it be the teachers? Many parents have stated that they feel uncomfortable when meeting with teachers. African-American parents often say teachers display an attitude of superiority toward them. The relationship between parents and teachers needs to be strengthened.

I recommend workshops to help parents and teachers work together better to benefit the children. Workshops for parents should have sessions on discipline, single parenting, peer group management, effects of television, movies and music. School personnel workshops should concentrate on parent interaction skills and African-American culture.

At the BETA Program our overall desire is to develop positive self-images and discipline in African-American children. We need the help of parents and teachers to accomplish this goal. Here are some ideas for parents and teachers that might help them in working with African-American youth.

For parents:

Show an interest in what your children are doing at school and what the school is doing for your children. Attend school functions. Volunteer at school. Meet with your child's teacher. We've seen positive changes in children whose parents have made contact with the teacher.

Set aside one to two hours a night to spend with your children. This should be time dedicated totally to them _ no interruptions from telephone, TV, music or friends. Use the time to talk about your child's day. Ask open-ended questions: "What did you do in school today?" not "How was school?" Be prepared to talk about your day as well. You might plan for quality time before dinner, if your schedule allows.

You must be willing to share your feelings about what your child has done. If bad grades are an issue, you might say: "I'm really upset and hurt. It worries me that something bad is going to happen to you because you're not concentrating on your education." Do not lay blame on your child or lecture him or her. That's not going to make an impression.

Likewise, share your admiration and pride in your child's work when grades are good.

For single mothers, be sure your child has contact with his or her father. Your child, girl or boy, needs to spend quality time with father or with any male relative who would be a positive influence.

Remember that the peer group is a very strong influence with middle school children. You and your child need to learn to say "no" to situations of negative influence or danger. Operation PAR offers classes in effective parenting. Call me (894-8566 in St. Petersburg) if you need help in finding a class near your home.

For teachers:

Be willing to change. Take classes in cultural sensitivity to stay aware of the changing ethnic structure of your classes.

Give kids who travel to school by bus a chance to unwind before they start into the business of studying.

Be understanding of the family situations your students come from. They are probably very different from the one you experienced as a child, and your family now.

Kent Graham is coordinator of the BETA Prevention Program for Operation PAR in St. Petersburg. To contact him, call 894-8566.

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