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Chicago Defender – Get engaged in, not in the way of, a child’s education

By Andrea L. Zopp

Outside the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown stands a 48-foot tall, 20-foot wide art installation that spells out the word “MOTHERS” in neon lights. Made of steel, it even rotates. The London-based artist who created it said he wanted to show that mothers are larger than life and “the most important people in the world.”

The piece reminded me of the enormity of the challenges facing some public schoolchildren in Chicago, and why parental engagement – be it mothers, fathers, or the primary guardians – is so critical to helping black and brown children overcome obstacles and achieve academically.

Next week, an independent commission appointed by Chicago school officials will begin convening community meetings seeking parents’ input on possible school closings. It’s a touchy subject, but the fact is some of our schools are half empty and underutilized schools are very often underperforming schools that are failing to adequately educate our children.

Sadly, too many of us have come to accept poor schools and poor academic results. Too many parents have become complacent and disengaged from their children’s education. I moderated a panel on education reform recently. On it was a principal from one of Chicago’s turnaround schools. She said that parents initially were angrier about the turnaround than the poor quality of the education their children had been receiving. They had come to accept the school as bad as it was.

Complacency and satisfaction with the status quo are not our history. Battles have been fought to ensure that every child has access to a quality education. Yet today expectations among so many people in the African American community are still very low. It’s time to change. It’s time to raise the bar on our expectations of and our aspirations for our children.

In 1957, nine African American children risked physical harm to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. One of them, Elizabeth Eckford, had to face an angry white mob alone her first day of school. Her parents didn’t have a phone, so she was unaware the other eight were meeting that morning to enter the school together.

As she approached, she soon realized the soldiers at the door were not there to protect her; they were there to block her from entering the school. Elizabeth had to walk back through the angry crowd to the bus stop, but she held her head high. Eventually, she attended and graduated from Central High School. Elizabeth and her family never doubted her worth, her value or her right to the same opportunities provided the majority children of Arkansas. How can we today, with a history filled with Elizabeth Eckford and others like her, accept less for our children?

The positive engagement and encouragement of a parent, guardian or mentor in a young person’s life can be a critical factor in their educational success. Yet too often it is the adults who place the barriers in front of our young people. How often have you been in a public place and seen an adult telling a child he or she is “stupid” or worse? Low expectations are dream killers.

I met a young man earlier this year named Dyrell Ashley, a 16-year-old high school junior at Julian High School. He told me that in the 3rd grade, he was given an assignment: Choose a career and a college and write a paper about it. Dyrell wrote that he wanted to be a doctor and attend Harvard. He picked Harvard because he found out it was the best school in the country.

His teacher told him that Harvard doesn’t accept Black boys from the South Side of Chicago. She tried to close the door of opportunity for Dyrell by setting that low bar, by telling him that he could not expect to succeed. But Dyrell knew better. His grandmother had taught him how to read before he entered preschool and she encouraged his career aspirations.

Dyrell is now in a program for students aspiring to medical careers. He has a 4.9 GPA on a scale of 4, and he is the No. 1 ranked junior at his school. Both Eckford and Dyrell shouldn’t have had to fight to get a good education. But they were empowered to overcome barriers put up by the people who were supposed to help them but didn’t, because they had support at home.

Pushing for access to a quality education is the next step up that our kids need and are entitled to. As mothers, fathers, and caregivers, it’s also your obligation.

Andrea L. Zopp is President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.