Hugh Price of the National Urban League tells the story of Cambria Smith, a teenager who began to flourish academically when she left a lousy junior high school environment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn and enrolled in the Science Skills Center, an experimental high school in downtown Brooklyn that emphasizes discipline, hard work and intellectual achievement.
The transition required a tough emotional adjustment. Cambria felt she had to escape the oppressive influence of her rowdy and underachieving friends from junior high school. She knew they were holding her back. They had contempt for the rigorous atmosphere that she was seeking.
“I didn’t want them following me,” she said. “I told my friends goodbye. I was ready to meet new people, have different experiences. People here are academically successful. I like that. They aren’t ashamed to be smart.”
The problem of black kids being pressured by their peers to act as if they haven’t a brain in their heads is a big one. In that particularly perverse corner of the universe, only white people get to be intelligent. Black people get to be dopes. The idea that this might be playing into the hands of racists is given no consideration. That would be a sign of intelligence, which of course is not permitted.
Said Price: “The negative pressures can even reach the point that achievers try to mask their intelligence. At Ballou High School in Washington, D.C., achievers were so embarrassed and intimidated that those who’d won academic honors were afraid to attend the awards ceremonies.”
This is a form of madness that needs to be turned around somewhat faster than immediately. Price was talking about it in the context of a no-nonsense effort that the Urban League is making to help lead black children out of the chaos of intellectual underachievement.
There are no longer any excuses for the failure of black children to learn, said Price, who is president of the Urban League. There are now many programs across the country that have gotten very poor inner-city youngsters to reach academic achievement levels that are at or above national norms.
“The needed innovations have been designed and field-tested,” said Price. “It is now time to put them to widespread use.”
But he warned that simply raising standards without providing the wherewithal for students to reach those standards would never work. Teachers, principals and schools have to be properly equipped to do their jobs. A math teacher who is not qualified to teach math is a menace. Schools without books are not schools, they are something else.
You get a sense of how serious Price is about this effort when you hear him insist that “unqualified educators” must be cast aside, “whatever their complexion.”
“This may prove uncomfortable,” he said, “because in the near term it could place some well-meaning but ill-prepared minority teachers at risk. But urban youngsters taught by poor teachers face the far greater risk, and over their entire lifetimes.”
Price also had pointed comments to make about the responsibility of parents. “The obvious place to begin,” he said, “is for individuals of child-bearing age not to bring children into this world until they are mature enough to love, nurture and provide for their offspring. The alarming incidence of out-of-wedlock teen births undermines the viability of our community by creating households, often headed by a lone teen mother, which lack the education and earning power to escape poverty. Though there are heroic exceptions, this is profoundly unfair … because it severely handicaps the children from the outset.”
He urged parents of children who are already in school to drop the handy excuses - too tired, too busy - and participate in the academic lives of their kids, including attending programs and extracurricular activities at school.
Price is carrying his message (there’s a lot more to it) around the country, and the Urban League has created a variety of programs to help bolster the achievement levels of black students.
Someday, if we’re lucky, the word will get out that being smart, like being black, is nothing to be ashamed of.
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