Guest Column

Education as a Civil Right

by DEBORAH HUNTER-HARVILL

I was greatly inspired when I was installed in November 2007 as the 18th president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, the largest association of African-American educators in the United States.

It was my dream to address every policy issue that affects the education of all children and certainly the African-American child.

First and foremost I wanted us to implement NABSE’s newest initiative, “Education is a Civil Right.” This initiative aims to raise awareness of the consequences of educational underachievement; address the educational disparities and inequities African-American students and families face; stimulate measurable improvements in school systems; and develop the talents and leadership within the communities to effect change.

Soon after assuming the presidency, I was appointed to my first superintendency; it was for the Westwood Heights School District in Flint, Mich. Although Westwood Heights enrolls only 1,200 students, the educational challenges are similar to those in most small and urban districts. Ninety-eight percent of the students are African Americans and the same percentage qualifies for free and reduced-price lunches. The district has not achieved adequate yearly progress at the high school for two years and has a dropout rate of 15.7 percent.

I always will be passionate about improving educational experiences for all children. I have a dual role now — as a national association president advocating policy to promote education as a civil right and as a local superintendent pushing specific policies and programs to bring about equity for children in my own community.

I want to develop an Education is a Civil Right agenda to address the historic underachievement of African-American students in public schools. I want to see a policy that will reverse the disparities and inequities in public education, including my own district, and improve education for all students on the local, county, state and national levels.

Changing Perceptions
Our economic conditions dictate that students must get a postsecondary degree to be successful in the workplace. In Westwood Heights, we want our students to aspire to go to college, to want to be somebody. Yet they haven’t always had the opportunity to interact with positive role models on a regular basis. Previously, few students from our district pursued college; several enlisted in the Army and others found entry-level jobs.

In September 2008, Westwood Heights registered 122 9th-grade students who needed to get excited about learning. They did not seem goal-oriented. Some had little vision of being successful and did not take responsibility for their own education.

We conducted a leadership summit for male students in grades 4-12. This motivational program brought visionary leaders, role models and celebrities to the school district to interact with students and emphasize the importance of learning. This was a critical event in the lives of these students because they don’t routinely identify with successful models — individuals who epitomize an “I can” attitude.

The male leadership summit provided hands-on science exploration, math lessons, and reading and writing activities. The students did team-building activities and examined anger and other critical feelings that young boys often face in single-parent families. The participants enjoyed going away for an academic weekend and talking with male role models. Several parents volunteered their help, and the principal, teachers and I joined the summit as well.

In the days following the summit, whenever I visited a school in the district, students would stop to comment on the experience or give me a hug. It was rewarding to see students in their classrooms, eager to learn.

Multiple Tacks
We’ve started additional initiatives and joined others:

•  A five-year strategic plan to secure buy-in from all the stakeholders to improve the Westwood Heights schools;

•  A parent academy that pulls together parents, grandparents and guardians to discuss empowerment, accountability, grade-level content expectations and parenting;

•  The Ninth Grade Academy, which brings successful journalists, athletes, corporate executives and public officials into our schools to interact with 9th graders. Students learn to set goals for sophomore year. A mini-career fair is part of the academy.

•  Superintendent’s Dialogue with Parents meeting, a monthly forum for parents to share their concerns. This activity improves parent and community relations.

•  The Michigan Department of Education Process Mentor Team, which provides opportunities for high-priority schools to attain adequate yearly progress through needs assessments, professional development, support services and technical assistance. 

•  A Curriculum Instructional Advisory Council to stay abreast of best practices, grade-level content expectations, state standards and other factors that enrich the lives of students, staff and parents.

•  A K-6 restructuring initiative to bring about positive change in student achievement through character education; safe, clean, healthy schools; and personal and academic growth.

•  Partnerships with the Refuge Temple in Flint, Mich., the Genesee Intermediate School District in Flint, and several other organizations focused on education excellence.

We also use our district’s professional development center to provide opportunities for staff to build knowledge and skills to improve the achievement of our students. Our efforts are paying off. More than 60 percent of our students decided to further their education at a college/university in the past year.

The Work Ahead
To ensure the good of all students, educators, school board members, civic leaders, private industry, parents, faith-based leaders and public officials must work together to put Education is a Civil Right into action. We must prepare our students for a bright, productive future by developing, implementing and sustaining strategies that will eliminate the achievement gap and turn out true scholars of tomorrow!

It is a monumental challenge, akin to eating an elephant one bite at a time, but if we don’t confront that challenge, we are denying our students a basic birthright, the right to a good education.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, is superintendent of Westwood Heights School District in Flint, Mich. E-mail: debharvil@aol.com