“A GATHERING STORM” Revisited

Special to the West Side Gazette

The PROBLEM

In May of 1998, the National Coalition of Advocates for Students (NCAS) issued a report titled: “A GATHERING STORM: How Palm Beach County Schools Fail Poor and Minority Children.” A year later in June, 1999 NCAS issued a sequel to their original report; and in October of 2000 they issued a third in the series.

“A Gathering Storm I” described Palm Beach County schools from black students’ perspective as a place “…where adults who may have little appreciation for community and family traditions that are different from those of their students may resort to lowering expectations in lieu of creating a school culture of high expectations for all.” While the report suggested that decision-makers and educators in Palm Beach County agree in principle that every student in every school deserves the best the county offers, it found that “…in Palm Beach County, it is usually the white students who get the best that the public schools have to offer,” and that “…black and Latino students in Palm Beach County do not have opportunities to learn that equal those of white students.”

Palm Beach County’s “gifted” program is designed for students who are perceived as being capable of “superior intellectual development and high performance.” White students represented 83.4% of all students enrolled in the gifted program. Students in the gifted or “high track” are enrolled in a series of courses that prepare them for college. Students who come to school with significant advantages experience the most advantageous schooling, while students with the greatest needs experience limited opportunity to advance their learning. These differential experiences contribute to the widening of learning gaps, and ultimately depress the achievement and aspirations of the “minority,” poor, and non-English speaking students, and students with “disabilities.” “Because these students are also subject to lower expectations and are perceived as ‘less able,’ they are often relegated to lower level courses that perpetuate their pattern of low achievement.” This is what Black folks refer to as “creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The report concludes that District-wide approaches to school organization should be reshaped; resources should be directed to those schools that serve students with the greatest needs; and each school should be more closely connected to the needs of the community it serves.

“A Gathering Storm II” found that there remained “…an urgent need for change in the Palm Beach County public schools.” In June of 1999 the report found that “minority” students were over-represented in “Educable Mentally Handicapped” (EMH) and “Emotionally Handicapped” (EH) programs. An EMH student is one who is “mildly impaired in intellectual and adaptive behavior” and whose development reflects a reduced rate of learning; “EH” is a condition resulting in persistent and maladaptive behavior which exists to a marked degree, and interferes with the student’s learning process. “Minority” students represented 73% of EMH; and 61% of EH assignees respectively, while comprising only 48% of students enrolled in district schools. The report notes that “…labels placed on unsuspecting children often become crosses they have to bear throughout their academic lives.”

The report quotes W. Alan Coulter, Associate Professor at Louisiana State University’s Human Development Center as saying: “the most frequent indication that general education is not effective is the over representation of racial and language minority students in exceptional education. Inappropriate placement of a child who learns differently but is not retarded in a program intended to serve children who are mentally handicapped is the single most discriminatory act that a school district may ever take against a child. Such a placement undercuts a student’s self-esteem and provides a life-long label that profoundly limits his or her educational, social, and economic futures.”

The report questioned the premise that some children are created as gifted while others are not, and suggested instead that different talents exist at different levels and at different times in every child’s life. Therefore, gifted educational programs present a pedagogically indefensible division of students into those who benefit from enriched school experiences and those who do not; and such educational opportunities can and should benefit all students. It concluded that poor relationships between district schools and the communities they serve were rampant and unabated, and that by all accounts Palm Beach County’s public schools are continuing to fail their neediest students!

“A Gathering Storm III” focused exclusively on school discipline policies…”because of the enormous impact they have on our youth, our communities, and our criminal justice system.” Palm Beach County’s disciplinary practices overwhelmingly discriminate against “minority” students, especially African-Americans. The report specifically noted that:

–Parents in particular, and concerned citizens in general, have an obligation to demand that schools stop writing-off children by denying them educational opportunities;

–Children who are suspended are often left at home with little or no supervision;

–Schools must change their disciplinary policies and practices, and concentrate on improving behavior instead of eliminating children;

–Improving school discipline in Palm Beach County public schools will require a collaborative effort from schools, parents, students, and the community.

This writer recalls that in 1989 Florida’s public education system ranked 49th out of the 50 states, that’s one up from the bottom! The explanation given for that dismal statistic was the presence of large numbers of black and Spanish-speaking students in Florida’s system; that were it not for these underachieving “minorities,” Florida would rank in the top ten if not the top five systems in the country. This writer was so offended by that accusation that I challenged for the Republican Party’s nomination for Commissioner of Education, which was at that time an elective position. I had no illusions about winning the nomination, but the campaign provided a “bully-pulpit” from which to counter the insidious allegations against African-American students. If it were left to me, I would have all students of African descent withdrawn from public schools; then, in the spirit of Richard Nixon, the system wouldn’t have black children to kick around anymore! We could then go back to educating our own children, as we did long before there was public education in America for white people.

For all the good points made in the three-part “Gathering Storm” series, I am in complete disagreement with its basic conclusion as to why black children underachieve in today’s public schools, leading to the alleged “learning-gap” between black and white students. The reports would uphold the premise that black children are out-performed by white children because our students most often attend schools where all or most of the students are black. Without actually saying so, this premise implies that white children learn perfectly well in all or predominantly white schools, and therefore have some sort of monopoly on intelligence. It suggests that for black children to be able to learn, they must be allowed to attend schools and sit in classrooms with white children. I refer to this as the “osmosis” theory: If black children are allowed to merely sit in the presence of white students, they would be able to absorb from the ‘ethers’ the excess intelligence given-off by the superior white students. Ridiculous you say? Then come up with a more logical explanation for the situation!

No one claims that white students ‘need’ the presence of black students in order to learn; Jewish children attend Jewish schools for the first eight years of formal schooling, yet no one claims they need the presence of Gentile or Christian children to get a quality education. Likewise, it is never contended that students in Catholic schools need to have Protestant or other non-Catholic children attend class with them in order to learn. Why then, is it assumed that only black children NEED the presence of students unlike themselves in order for learning to be even possible!? Rubbish!!!

Black students learned perfectly well in “segregated” schools; they would have learned even better if their schools received financial support comparable to that provided to schools serving white children. The protest in South Carolina’s Clarendon County that led to the Brown vs. Board Supreme Court decision was not about integration or a desire by blacks to assimilate with whites; it was about the grievously inequitable distribution of education resources, especially money! It was the National NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund that insisted that “separate would never be equal,” and the only way to assure an “equal” education for black students was to allow them to attend schools with white children. This was a concession to the determination known to be held by whites that nothing but the best was good enough for their children, and more than adequate resources would be allocated for their education and development. The NAACP-LDF was convinced that only by integrating such well-financed white schools could black children hope to get the best quality education. Their intentions were good, but they were dead wrong! And today we witness the devastation wrought in the aftermath of that failed experiment. If black parents were equally as concerned about the proper development of our children as white parents were for theirs, integration would never have replaced educational excellence as the hallmark to be achieved by black students academically! We did our children a tremendous disservice, and it is long past time for us to make it up to them!!

While the Gathering Storm reports correctly criticized the School District of Palm Beach County for its failures regarding black students, they neglected to address the correspondent failures of black adults to adequately protect black children from that uncaring district. The system of public education in America was designed and created for the express purpose of educating white children exclusively; that is a fact folks! That we mistakenly imposed our children on that system and on white educators does not change that fact, and further, it created an impossible task for white educators and black children! We expected – and still expect – white adults to do for our children what only black adults are naturally equipped by our Creator to do: educate them for their survival and success! It is this abandonment by black adults of our responsibility to protect and advance the interests of our children that is the root cause of all of the problems that beset us as a people. In the meantime, let’s give white folks credit for doing what is the natural thing for them to do: provide for, protect, and take care of their own! In this respect we blacks would do well to follow their example.

The SOLUTION

“God bless the child (or Race) that has it’s own!”

First and foremost, black adults have an obligation to re-assume direct responsibility for educating and developing our own children. However, the ability to do that must be preceded by a willingness to do so; and such a willingness needs to now be developed, it is no longer a natural trait of our people as we have become over-dependent on the gratuity of whites for everything important. That is in large part why we are disrespected, hated, and despised – not only by whites and other ethnic and nationality groups, but most damagingly, by blacks ourselves. Self-hatred is our most debilitating characteristic! If we could overcome that handicap, nothing whites or anyone else might choose to do would have the effect they would want it to; we would have immunized ourselves against their mischief and mayhem.

For black adults to leave the “education” of our children to our former slave-masters would be equivalent to zebras voluntarily turning over the education and training of baby zebras to a pride of lions; lions EAT zebras, and baby zebras are the easiest meal for lions to take advantage of! A racist system consumes the weak, hapless, and helpless; blacks comprise the weakest patch in the quilt-like fabric of America’s social structure, and our children are the weakest and most vulnerable part of our “patch.” They deserve better than we have given and are giving them; it’s time to stand up and start protecting our children just as whites and other ethnics and nationalities do for theirs!

Jews provide “Jewish-centered” education and development for Jewish children; Catholics provide their offspring with “Catholic-centered” education. Other ethnic, nationality, and racial groups do the same, with one notable exception: Americans of African descent! Surprise, surprise. The rank-and-file of black folks have run away from African-centered education for their children as though it were the plague, when in fact it is the only solution to our current dilemma!

In a document titled “Heshima to Hotep” prepared for the Sankofa Shule in Lansing, Michigan, the school’s founder Dr. Freya Rivers, writes: “An African-centered education is a paradigm that changes a child’s perception of reality to see good and beautiful relationships between all connected creations…; built on the principles of Khepera, MAAT, the Nguzo Saba, and Sankofa. African Centeredness cannot be measured by IQ tests, achievement tests, or any other rational measure of student achievement. Rather, it creates a connectedness of people who through their like relationships strive together to build a new world that reflects their cultural foundation. This is “The Way” that was lost as described in Armah in ‘2000 Seasons.’ Once we begin to rebuild on a strong African-centered foundation, excellence in academics will be achieved because people who truly “know themselves” excel.”

At our African-centered school in West Palm Beach, we have a similar way of making the same point as Dr. Rivers. Christians are familiar with the scripture: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, then all other things will be added unto you;” We secularize that scripture by assuring our students that if they work hard and well to become the very best human beings they are capable of becoming, everything else they could want or hope for, including academic excellence, will come to them more easily.

African-Centered Education Defined

The Council of Independent Black Institutions (CIBI) defines African-centered education thusly: “…the means by which Afrikan culture – including the knowledge, attitudes, values and skills needed to maintain and perpetuate it throughout the nation-building process – is developed and advanced through practice. Its aim therefore, is to build commitment and competency within present and future generations to support the struggle for liberation and nationhood.”

In addition to that basic definition, CIBI also “…acknowledges Afrikan spirituality as an essential aspect of our uniqueness as a people and makes it an instrument of our liberation; facilitates participation in the affairs of nations and defining or redefining reality in our own terms, in our own time and in our own interests;” and “…prepares Afrikans for self-reliance, nation maintenance, and nation management in every regard.”

Read and understood correctly then, African-centered education and development teaches children to be responsible for self and others; to be self-reliant; to be respectful of self and others, and to contribute to the good of the whole. We teach that “It is not necessary to condemn a dirty glass, just put a clean one down next to it (and the difference will speak for itself).” They are also taught to appreciate the Ancient African proverb that: “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; but if you teach a man how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” At the Joseph Littles-NGUZO SABA African-centered charter school we teach our children how to fish, so they will be able to feed themselves and those for whom they are responsible – for a lifetime! Can anyone find fault with that? JL-NSCS seeks to do for children of African descent what Jewish schools do for Jewish children; what Catholic parochial schools do for Catholic children; and what Christian and Muslim schools do for their children respectively: Help them to first become the very best Jews, Catholics, Christians, and Muslims they are capable of being; then after that, they can become better at whatever else they may choose to aspire to!

In a paper titled: “The Collective Unconscious: An Opportunity for New Thoughts on the Existence of Independent Black Institutions and Black Achievement Theories,” Drs. Lawson, Edward, and Tonia Bush of California note that Independent Black Institutions (IBIs) have persisted for over 10,000 years. Among the more cogent points they make are:

–The ancient African age-grade system, which included apprenticeships and initiation rites for womanhood and manhood, was the earliest form of institutionalized and systematic education.

–Building on the age-grade system, Nile Valley civilizations created elaborate and highly sophisticated IBIs. These eventually spread to Mesopotamia and India.

–Just prior to the dawn of the (Western) Christian age, Africa was the predominate place to go for education. People from all over the world came to study in its great institutions and libraries. Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle are just a few of the Greeks who spent years studying the ancient philosophies and sciences.

–Between 300 and 400 A.D. Egypt, Nubia, and Ethiopia developed and built their own Coptic (original ‘Christian’) churches, a critical component of which were their schools.

–The axiomatic aim of the ancient system of education was to utilize the sciences so that individuals might return to the Divine essence, energy, or force from whence they came. In this case, education is meant to “bring out” what is already inside of each person, and though ancient in origin, this focus also remains as a central theme of many indigenous African systems of education today.

These are the forerunners and underpinnings of contemporary African-centered education in America, and the Joseph Littles-NGUZO SABA Charter School (JL-NSCS) is the only African-centered public school in the entire State of Florida. That being the case, our school should be ‘adopted’ and supported by every responsible black adult in the state, certainly all who live in South Florida, even those whose children do not attend. For the sake of what we have the potential of doing for black children and their families in general, we deserve that support, no less so than the Meyer Jewish Academy in West Palm Beach enjoys financial support from Jews throughout South Florida and beyond.

Beyond financial support, an even greater and more profound effect can be achieved if “middle-class” parents of very bright black students would enroll their young scholars in JL-NSCS or one of its planned satellite campuses. Imagine the brilliance that could be concentrated there, just as is the case with the Meyer Jewish Academy, where high schools descend every year to compete for Jewish students graduating 8th grade with their 3.8 and above GPAs! We can do the same, if not even better; why not put us and yourselves to the test by enrolling your children in our African-centered school?

Enroll your budding geniuses in JL-NSCS, and discover what Ben E. King referred to when he sang: “There is a Rose in Spanish Harlem.” “Harlems” throughout America are brimming with “roses” needing only to be discovered and nurtured; shouldn’t that be the right of every black child, and should not every black adult assume his/her share of the responsibility for assuring that they have it?

Since its inception in January, 1999 JL-NSCS has served the most difficult demographic of students in the West Palm and Riviera Beach communities, those who district schools are most inclined to rid themselves of. In spite of being a repository for children the school district believes are beyond hope, our school has never received an ‘F’ on the dreaded Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). In fact, our students did exceptionally well on the 2008 “Florida Writes” exam; with 100% of our fourth graders, and 87% of our eighth graders passing! All we need to get to that elusive ‘A’ rating is an infusion of children from middle-class and suburban families who place a high value on education, comparable to those who attend the aforementioned Meyer Jewish Academy.

Imagine for a moment, what would happen if all the black “blue-chip” football players produced in Florida were to attend HBCUs in our state; where would the very best college football be played? Similarly, what do you suppose would result if black students with “blue-chip” academic potential were to attend JL-NSCS? We would “ace” any and all tests – no matter how “culturally-biased” they may be, and “clean-the-clock” of any and all opponents, that’s what!

Readers might recall the advertisements for “Father Flanagan’s Boys Town” in years past; an older boy was carrying a smaller one on his back, and the caption read: “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother!” At the Joseph Littles-NGUZO SABA Charter School in West Palm Beach, Florida we have taken on the unenviable task of educating and developing the neediest of our children, but we say with pride: “They ain’t heavy, they’re our children!!!” Are any of you readers willing to step-up-to-the-plate and help us shoulder the load?

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