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Mentoring can give minority kids a chance

October 03, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

To hear Paul Slocumb tell it, one of the biggest bars to minority students' achievements is those youths' own attitudes. Whether the student is Hispanic, African-American or even Native American, Slocumb said that in too many cases those who try to excel academically are criticized for "acting white."

Slocumb, co-author of "Removing the Mask: Giftedness in Poverty," spoke Tuesday to the Washington County Public Schools Minority Achievement Task Force. He said the idea that getting good grades is "acting white" needs to be challenged by educators and others in the community. Ask the student, Slocumb said, whether only white people are allowed to be educated and earn higher incomes.

Using a blizzard of charts from Texas, Slocumb convincingly demonstrated the strong link between education and income - and the continuing disparity between men and women's pay in this country.

In a nation where a woman needs much more education than a man just to receive the same pay, Slocumb said the poorest people are single women who don't have a high school diploma. They also tend to have more children than women in middle-class families, Slocumb said, raising another generation of people who don't value education.

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But far from engaging in a round of "blame the victim," Slocumb told the group that the entire community has to get involved in changing the attitudes of young people who don't see any value in getting good grades.

If students' parents aren't going to tell them, Slocumb said, someone else must take an interest in getting that message to them.

Groups like the Boys and Girls Club and Girls Inc., can spread that message, as well as the churches and other community groups. But, Slocumb said, it has to start with the employees of the school system.

The first reaction of some teachers will undoubtedly be: "How many more jobs are going to be loaded onto the backs of classroom teachers?"

But there is another source of help. It's the mentor program, with which I had personal experience at Fountaindale Elementary School with three separate students.

We read books together and did math problems, but mostly we talked about their lives. In some cases, such children live in families, where, as Slocumb said, "the parents are too busy to parent." That's because they have too many other children, or are working multiple low-wage jobs in order to make ends meet.

When I began the program, I worried that I might somehow do something to make the child's life worse. But I soon learned that what they needed most was not a tutor or a disciplinarian, but someone who would listen to them and be a friend.

With help from the principal, guidance counselors and teachers, we made progress. It happened slowly, but grades improved, as did the students' confidence in what they could do.

An enhanced mentoring program should be one of the recommendations the task force makes to the school system in November. Here are a few of my recommendations for making it work:

n Get teacher buy-in before placing any student with a mentor, so that the teacher is committed to sharing any problems the student is having in the classroom. In my experience, some teachers welcomed the help, while others weren't so enthusiastic, ignoring e-mailed requests for information.

n Agree on a set day each week for the mentor to visit the child - and make sure it isn't on a day and time when student assemblies are regularly scheduled. This program is supposed to be about one-on-one time.

n If the child is absent on a day the mentor is scheduled to visit, notify the mentor, so he or she doesn't make the trip to the school for nothing.

Tempted to say it's not your problem? Slocumb noted that if Washington County allows a large pocket of poverty to develop, the costs to society, for increased social services and police and courts, will be passed on to all taxpayers.

Slocumb said the main reason parents move their children from one school to another in the metropolitan areas is not in search of better academics, but for a safer school. Poverty breeds frustration which leads to anger, he said, and there is only so far away the middle class can move to separate itself from those pockets of poverty. At some point someone has to begin working on the problem, he said.

Slocumb didn't say it, but I will: African-Americans and other minorities usually don't welcome someone of another race telling them what's good for their child - or suggesting that what they've been doing isn't good enough. That's why the effort has to begin in that community, with the churches and groups like the local chapter of the NAACP and Brothers United Who Dare to Care.

This last group has already mounted a drive to put more computers into black neighborhoods, to tie that community into the Internet. Perhaps that group and others like it can help lead the effort to tell children that academic achievement isn't just for white people, but for everyone who wants to succeed.

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