MAXWELL:  Local hero invests in young lives

12/9/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Pinellas schools remained remarkably calm during the aftermath of the 1996 race riots in south St. Petersburg. Few people are aware of this fact, but our schools remained calm mainly because of the work of Roy Kaplan, executive director of the Tampa Bay office of the National Conference for Community and Justice.

Hours after the violence subsided, as adults engaged in hateful rhetoric and finger-pointing, select students at all of the high schools organized peace rallies at area parks. The students, members of school multicultural committees that were established by Kaplan’s organization, also sponsored open-mike forums and other assemblies to let their schoolmates share their concerns.

For these efforts and others, Kaplan, 54, traveled to the nation’s capital to receive today the first-ever U.S. Department of Education’s Local Heroes Award. Education Secretary Richard Riley will present the award during a ceremony at the department’s headquarters.

Kaplan is among 10 educators chosen nationwide from 40 nominees for this new recognition. “There are so many good things going on in local education around the country right now, we created this award to honor Dr. Kaplan and others whose service is making a difference to our kids and our schools,” said Will Tanner of the department’s office of intergovernmental and interagency affairs.

“This award is an incentive and an acknowledgement that the things we are doing in the area of schools are being recognized,” Kaplan said. “It reinforces the impact and relevance of our youth programs to reduce racism, bigotry and bias.”

Kaplan has been recognized before as a national resource on issues addressing racism, bigotry and bias in education. Most recently, President Clinton made him a consultant to White House staff members and to the president’s Race Relations Initiative: One America.

In 1991, Kaplan, with a team of volunteers, the support of the Pinellas School District and a grant from the Juvenile Welfare Board, started a program to establish multicultural committees, comprised of students, teachers, principals, other administrators and parents, on all elementary, middle and high school campuses.

“We piloted this whole thing to create opportunity to empower children and youth so that they can feel like they’re full partners in our community in improving the educational process and also the quality of life for everybody,” Kaplan said. “The kids develop projects for the whole school to improve understanding, to help kids learn to live together in peace and harmony, to value diversity and differences. During the disturbances two years ago in St. Petersburg, you didn’t hear of problems in the schools because our multicultural committees were working.”

Kaplan’s philosophy transcends the academic: “We can work as hard as we can as teachers and educators to try and teach kids how to read and write. But if kids don’t feel good about themselves or about their teachers and one another, then we’re wasting our time. I personally feel that we have to put more emphasis on helping young children and our teenagers feel good about themselves and become good people. I think the rest will follow.”

Kaplan believes that the work of the National Conference for Community and Justice is broadly beneficial, pointing to a recent evaluation of the multicultural committees by the University of South Florida’s Department of Psychology. Researchers report that 97 percent of the students interviewed said that their lives had been permanently changed. Principals and parents agree.

In addition to training students, the National Conference, with the assistance of Sheila Keller, head of the Pinellas multicultural program, conducts diversity sessions with all of the school district’s teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and administrators.

But the focus is on children. “Our work is an ongoing process,” Kaplan said. “It’s a multifaceted approach to improve interpersonal relationships and develop a spirit of community. It’s beginning to pay dividends. You can see that it has transformed some schools. We’re tapping the students’ enthusiasm and exuberance. They’re demonstrating that they can contribute to society and change some of the negative images that adults have of kids. “