Monthly Archives: February 2011

Dr. Tammy Mann: Raising Expectations

Dr. Tammy Mann, Executive Director of the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute at the United Negro College Fund, leads the Institute’s efforts to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for African American children from preschool through college.  While many of the Institute’s programs are gender neutral, she is acutely aware of the need to focus on boys. “On UNCF campuses women outnumber men 2 to 1 on average.   UNCF is very concerned about this imbalance,” she notes.

One of the Institute’s current projects, which provides performance-based scholarships to low-income African American males, hopes to improve these statistics.  The Institute teamed up with MDRC, a social policy research organization, to offer scholarships tied to academic and attendance benchmarks to African American male college students with averages lower than traditional scholarship programs.  “The goals of this program go far beyond just providing additional money to these young men”, Dr. Mann explains. “The program is designed to change their mindset.  When they receive this scholarship money, they know that someone else is focused on them doing better than they are currently doing.  The expectations are being raised, which, in turn, helps these young men raise their expectations of themselves”.

Raising expectations is an important component of several Institute programs, including another aimed at increasing college matriculation and completion rates of low-income minority youth. In the Partnership for College Completion initiative, the Institute, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) network and the Corporation for Enterprise Development  provide groups of 6th and 11th grade students and their families with a mix of financial incentives, financial education, college readiness skills and peer networking skills. Dr. Mann explains, “This program seeks to prepare entire families for the mindset of college. It is especially important for the children to know that their family is preparing for them to go to college, so that they can begin to see themselves as college students.”

While the Institute’s research and initiatives are primarily designed to provide support to those with limited means, the importance of raising students’ expectations cuts across economic lines.  “In fact, I would say that the values of working hard and staying focused could be even more difficult to impart to children when the parents have the ability to provide more things” she suggests.  “Parents can be so focused on what they are providing for their children, they may make the assumption that if children are given what they need (or what we think they need), the children will understand our expectations, establish their own, and the right trajectory will just evolve.  This is not always the case.  It is important for parents to think more specifically about what messages their children are getting from them.”  So how can parents make sure their children are getting the right message?  “We can help children appreciate the choices and sacrifices we are making for them and the importance of making those choices by having deliberate conversations with them in non-confrontational moments” she offers.  “This can help create the framework for our children to understand the importance of having and meeting expectations.”

With an 18 year old son and an 11 year old daughter, Dr. Mann has the perspective on these issues of a mother as well as a researcher.  Her son is a freshman at Morehouse with plans to pursue a dual degree in applied physics and aerospace engineering.  While he always had a strong academic focus, she worked hard to ensure that he understood his parents’ expectations and that he continued to raise his own.  When he became interested in science and math, she enrolled him in math and science enrichment summer programs.  She researched the merits of the International Baccalaureate Diploma program his high school offered, and supported his completion of this program.  Even with a willing pupil, it wasn’t easy.  “It takes a lot of work—you have to look around to see what is out there and make sure that your children are able to take advantage of whatever opportunities exist.  Knowing your children, and being tuned in and attentive to what will spark their imaginations are key.  It can be so tough for parents because regardless of how much work you put in there are no guarantees of success.”   Equally important for parents, especially moms, is managing their own expectations, in order to get to the point where they can feel as if they have done enough.  “The balance between trying to do all you can to support your sons and knowing when you have done enough is very difficult to find”.

Raising our sons’ expectations, managing our own—we need all the help we can find to be up to the task.  The research that Dr. Mann and her team are conducting identifies issues and offers approaches that should be of interest to us all.  More information about the work that they are doing can be found at http://www.uncf.org/fdpri/.

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Educational Reform: Where Are We?

A few nights ago, I watched Malcolm Gladwell interview Wendy Kopp, Founder and CEO of Teach For America.  I sat with about 450 young, mostly white people, and listened to Kopp talk about TFA’s mission to end educational inequity along economic lines, and its successes in poor communities in New Orleans, Newark, Philadelphia, and elsewhere in the nation.

As inspiring as it was to hear, I couldn’t help but ponder the irony of it all:  Kopp, Michelle Rhee (former DC Schools Chancellor who is now CEO of Students First, a national movement with a mission to  “transform public education”), and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are the national voices of educational reform.  The population they are best serving, school age children living in poor urban communities, is overwhelmingly Black and Brown.  Where are the Black and Brown national leaders in this effort and why aren’t they getting more attention? Other than Geoffrey Canada, who’s impressive work with the Harlem Children’s Zone has given him a prominent presence in the educational reform debate, who else in the Black and Brown communities is stepping up nationally to address this issue?

I applaud Kopp, Rhee and Duncan’s efforts and do not question their commitment to equitable educational opportunities for all children.  But they cannot and should not be the only voices speaking on this national platform. Education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.  Where are our civil rights leaders on this issue?  And where are we?

We need to be there, in leadership and with financial support, because we are going to have to be part of the solution.  We need leaders who have the cultural competency and sensitivity to help everyone understand the opportunities and take advantage of them.   We need to see and hear from the Black and Brown leaders involved in determining policy, working towards its implementation and enabling our communities to buy in to the proposed changes.

We also need to be there because we have a vested interest in finding solutions. Those of us who care deeply about the fate of Black and Brown boys, be we parents or simply people who don’t want to see the last 100 years of progress reversed because half our population is undereducated or in prison, should be present for and focused on this debate.

This is particularly important because our educational underachievement cuts across class lines and the current leaders of the debate are not at all focused on this aspect of the problem.  But we should be–we at Ground Control Parenting certainly are–and we need to make sure that there are people in the national debate focused on this as well.

Who should be stepping up to address this national crisis?  Should leadership come from our existing civil rights leadership? The NAACP? The Urban League? The NAACP Legal Defense Fund?  The United Negro College Fund? The Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses? All of the above?  Who are the educational innovators out there who haven’t yet captured the national spotlight?

Several factors further muddle this education reform debate: there is no silver bullet that will fix everything, there are no standard means of figuring out what works, everyone wants to have the right answer (or at least the right answer for now).   Perhaps we need our existing civil rights organizations to identify significant people of color in the game (including those in the trenches: the Black and Hispanic school chiefs in major US cities), get them together, help them fashion strategies that have proven to work and that can have the most significant impact, and jointly promote these strategies, thereby bring more of us into this national debate.

What can we as parents do?  We can get smart on the issues. We can get involved in local educational politics—engage in policy discussions, learn where candidates stand on these issues—to understand the choices being made and how these choices impact our children.  We can encourage our civil rights organizations to take a more prominent role. With so much at stake, we cannot afford to stay on the sidelines.

Carol Sutton Lewis

Readers, what are your thoughts on our voice in the educational reform debate?  Let us hear them!

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Your Son Will Not Be The Next LeBron James

I’m sure that most of our readers dutifully read to their sons from infancy through toddlerhood.  I am equally sure, though, that as soon as their little princes turn five, many of those same readers thrust a basketball, football or bat into their hands.  Many of our sons’ early school years are marked by the routine of twice weekly practices and weekend games. When they reach high school, sports competition intensifies, resulting in more and longer practices, games and tournaments in far-flung locations, and intensive summer sports camps, often in international locations.  If we look more closely, though, we’ll find that many of our star athlete sons are mediocre students at best.  They may have a mean jump shot that they’ve practiced for hours, but we have to fight with them to make sure they put in the requisite effort on their schoolwork.  I wonder whether our professionalization of early childhood sports has resulted in young men who never got the chance to develop the love of learning or the hobby of reading for pleasure because they were too busy being groomed in fourth grade for a future on their high school and college varsity teams.

How did we get here?  The truth is that the activity that you spend the most time on is the activity at which you’ll excel.  I wonder if we’ve inadvertently sent our boys the message that the most important thing to the adults in their lives is that they excel in sports.  I can hear a chorus of parents shouting that school is more important.  But let me ask this question — How many of you have taken your 4th grader off of the soccer team when a teacher reported that he had trouble with reading or math?  How many of you have taken your 10th grader off of the Varsity basketball team when he brought home a report card riddled with “C’s”?  While I’m sure none of you ignored that bad news, I suspect that your response was to get a tutor or some other extra help, rather than to push your son to reallocate his own time and energy so that his accomplishments in the classroom equaled those on the field.  I would ask us to challenge ourselves and ask what message that sends our sons.

The virtues of learning teamwork from childhoods spent in Pop Warner and Little League are legendary, and some of our young men on AAU basketball teams do parlay that experience into college scholarships.  But for every high school senior who lands at a Division 1 school based on early childhood and teen sports experience, there are ten seniors, stars on the court or the field and mediocre or worse in the classroom, who end up with disappointing and limited college choices.  It is easy and comfortable for schools and communities to envision young Black men as star athletes. It is less common or comfortable for them to embrace young Black men as scholars.   In public and private high schools, the Black star athlete is accepted and celebrated by the school community, including parents and teachers of all races.  Mediocre school performance by those star athletes is excused or ignored.   As parents, we should expect and demand more.  Perhaps we need to rethink our priorities when it comes to school versus sports.  While I am hardly suggesting we force our kids to abandon the pursuit of excellence of the field, I am suggesting that we need to focus on producing fewer Michael Vicks and more Paul Robesons.

Lisa E. Davis

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What Parents Can Do: Wendy Van Amson

Wendy Van Amson is the co-founder of the Independent Schools Diversity Network (“ISDN”), an alliance of parents and educators dedicated to facilitating diversity efforts within the New York City independent school community.  Wendy and her co-founder Esther Hatch formed ISDN in 2003.  Wendy and her husband have three children: a daughter who is a college sophomore, a daughter who is a senior in high school, and a son who is a high school sophomore.  All three children have attended independent schools since kindergarten.   Wendy sat down with Ground Control Parenting to talk about ISDN and her experiences as a parent in the independent school system.

GCPWhat experiences led you to create the Independent Schools Diversity Network?

WVA:  Having three children at three different New York City private schools, I joined the parent diversity committee in all three schools, believing that doing the same volunteer job in all schools would be simpler—but it wasn’t. These experiences led me to form the Diversity Leadership Council, with representatives from many of the independent schools on Manhattan’s Upper East and West side, in an effort to build a network of schools that could work together on diversity issues.  I met Esther Hatch when we sat together on a diversity panel for the New York City chapter of the National Association of Independent Schools.  Esther had been doing the same kind of coalition building with downtown independent schools, and we decided to join forces and work together.  The Independent Schools Diversity Network was formed in 2003.

GCP:  What is ISDN’s mission and what does it do to carry out that mission?

WVA: ISDN is a coalition of parents and educators interested in furthering diversity initiatives in New York City independent schools. We provide educational forums for parents and educators, and organize affinity group activities, including single sex group activities for boys and girls of color in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades, and an annual 7th and 8th grade Diversity dance.  The Diversity Dance, which is open to all, drew 300 students from 32 schools in the New York City area this year.  We started this dance 8 years ago to give young people from a variety of schools the chance to meet one another before high school began.  This year we inaugurated a “Mommy, Daddy and Me” program for parents and children in kindergarten, first and second grades.

In order to address the achievement gap among children of color, last spring ISDN launched “On Track”, a pilot program on Saturday mornings for 5th through 8th graders focused on developing leadership skills and self-esteem.  This fall we added two additional classes, Writing/Study Skills and Math.   It is working out quite well–the feedback on this program has been great.

GCP:   What kind of help has ISDN found that parents of color in independent schools need?

WVA: We have found that parents need a support group, a place where parents from a variety of independent schools can talk together honestly, openly and safely about their children and their children’s schools, and we provide this for them.    We encourage parents not to suffer in silence, and to understand that others share their issues.  Issues from “How could this school tell me that my brilliant son Johnny is struggling?” to “What do I do with a racially insensitive teacher, classmate, or parent?” come up frequently, and this is the place to talk about them.

As importantly, we empower parents to become better and more involved participants in their school community.  We have heard so many parents say, “I want my child to be a part of that school, but I don’t want to be a part of that community”.  This kind of thinking is not in their child’s best interest.  We help them figure out how to embrace the school community and engage in the academic and social interaction that is an important part of their children’s lives at school.  At least one parent has to do this in each family.

GCP: How can parents become involved with ISDN?

WVA: If parents live in the New York City area, we would love to have them join us, and they can contact me for more information at wvanamson@gmail.com.  We are currently rebuilding our website, www.isdnnyc.org, and it should be up in its new and improved form shortly. We would love to see ISDN become a franchised operation across the nation.  We can’t go into every community and create an ISDN for them, but we can guide parents through the process of figuring out what to do and how to do it.  We are not set up to do this yet, but it is in our master plan.  Any parents interested in this concept should contact me as well.

GCP: How would you advise parents to proceed if they want to create a diversity committee in their children’s school?

WVA: There is no quick and simple formula for creating a committee.  So much depends upon the institution, the involvement of the administration, and the interest level of the parent body, faculty and administration.

However, here are a few general steps to get started:

  • Identify who is interested. All it takes is two interested people to start.
  • Write a description of what you want to accomplish.
  • Identify whom your targeted audience will be:  Will it be open to all families or specifically to families of color?  Will  membership be limited to specific grades?
  • Solicit the support of your division director for permission to meet within the school. If this is not possible, you can plan a meeting outside of the school (e.g., local restaurant, at someone’s home).
  • Identify a date, time and location to meet.  Consider what is the best day and time to reach your target audience (e.g., morning, evening or a Saturday meeting)
  • Develop and distribute a flyer to advertise the meeting.  Begin advertising the event at least one month in advance to your targeted audience via flyers, emails, school newsletter, phone calls or word of mouth.
  • Fundamental issues to discuss at first meeting:   What are the needs of your attendees?    What are they interested in doing or   achieving together?  Will this group be solely for parents or will it include student activities?  What will be the time & frequency of the meetings?  Who will volunteer to do what?

Wendy had more insights to share, which we will feature in future posts.  She and ISDN are a great example of what parents can do to make a difference for our sons and daughters in independent schools.

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