MAXWELL:   Placing value on learning will save our kids

1/28/2004 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Body Text I spend much of my time worrying about the plight of average African-American children. I worry so much about them that I established a foundation, in 1994, that attempts to give select kids the financial means and counseling to succeed against the odds. So far, we have helped dozens of children get into college and graduate.

I mention the above to suggest that you do not need to be rich to help children. This year, I have visited several cities to speak with parents and community leaders about my foundation and how they can help rescue our children. All of these people have at least one thing in common: They know that we have failed our children and that we must save them.

Here in St. Petersburg, where I live and work, I see neglect on the part of black parents. We, black parents, are the main reason that so many of our children are being left behind _ and forgotten. Each morning, as I drive to work through predominantly black neighborhoods and pass school-bus stops where mostly black children gather, I am always amazed at the large number of kids who do not carry books, notebooks or anything else to indicate that they are en route to school. The absence of school-related material makes me think that these kids did little, if any, homework. I pass the same bus stops in the afternoon after school is out and see many of the same kids. Again, they do not carry books or anything else to indicate that they have been to school at all.

I am just as worried when I drive at night and see so many black children on the street. I am not saying that children should never be out at night. I am saying, though, that too many of these children are on their own, without adult supervision, doing whatever they please. I am saying that school is hardly on the minds of these kids.

This failure on the part of black parents has little, if anything, to do with the area’s racial insensitivity. This a failure of personal commitment and responsibility. This is simple parental failure. Anyone who reads this column regularly knows that I am repeating myself when I say that blacks need to establish a good-parenting initiative as soon as possible. We need to make education the center of our children’s lives from the moment they are born.

Again, I am not talking about depending on outsiders and outside forces _ teachers, principals, mayors, federal and state dollars. We must develop the good sense to help ourselves for our children’s sake. Too many of our children are being left behind, shunted into classes for those with disabilities and behavior problems. Too many score low on standardized tests. Too many have poor study skills and habits. Too many come to school each day ill-prepared to learn in a classroom setting.

I personally know many children who rarely get a good night’s sleep because their mothers are fighting with the men in their lives. I know many black kids who rarely eat a decent breakfast before school. What are teachers, even the most empathetic, to do with such children? I know many black parents, mostly mothers, who did not graduate from high school, who do not appreciate the need for education. I pity some of these women because they, too, were victims of homes that did not value learning.

Yes, we need a good-parenting initiative. But where to start? Where do we find help? I know where to start: with the black church, the most powerful institution in black life.

Let me tell you about my personal experience with the black church, parenting and education. When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago during the early 1970s, curiosity brought me to the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s popular church on Cottage Grove. During my first visit, Jackson asked for volunteers for his school homework project. I, along with the four other black students who came with me, volunteered. Our job was simple: Each night we had to telephone the 25 parents assigned to us and remind the parents to turn off the TV from 7 to 9 p.m. They were to help their children with homework or engage them in some other academic activity.

I worked on the project for a year, and I know that I did a lot of good. Jackson’s church was responsible for this good work. Today’s black churches that have not done so already need to create efforts that focus on our children’s education. I am not talking about reading the Bible, either. We have enough of that. I am talking about the academic side of our children’s lives that is being neglected.

Any church that refuses to join this crusade is good for nothing and does not deserve to exist. If a church really wants to do God’s work, find ways to help our children develop a love of learning. In this modern era, education has to become the new gospel.