One such organization in Florida’s Pinellas County is Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, a coalition of 38 churches, mosques and synagogues. Founded in 2004, FAST has become known for its annual “Nehemiah Action Assembly.” At these events, leaders ask public officials to answer tough “yes” or “no” questions while committing to support specific policies of community concern.
A recent gathering focused on an attempt to persuade superintendent John Stewart and school board members to adopt “direct instruction.” FAST leaders argue the program would improve reading scores. A 2010 report found Pinellas had the nation’s lowest graduation rate for African-American boys. The 20 low-performing schools are in neighborhoods with high percentages of black students who receive free or reduced-price lunch.
Before the meeting, I telephoned the Rev. Robert Ward, a leader of FAST’s education committee. I sensed that the organization unfairly places all the blame on our schools for African-American boys’ dismal performance. Knowing that school board members would be on the hot seat, I wanted to know if FAST ever requires black parents and other guardians to answer questions about their direct involvement in their children’s learning.
The answer was no. Ward said his committee only listens to black parents’ and grandparents’ concerns. He said they work with other organizations that deal with parenting issues.
That is unfortunate and misguided, I suggested. FAST, although well intentioned and successful in some areas, needs to establish a take-no-excuses effort focused exclusively on involving black parents in their children’s learning at home and at school. Otherwise, everyone’s time and resources are being squandered.
Years of research consistently confirm that the parent is the child’s first and most effective teacher — especially during the early years. A British study indicates, moreover, that young children who read and are read to at home in addition to school perform better than peers who read only at school. FAST should convene a Nehemiah assembly at least once a month and ask black parents questions.
Below are some questions I crafted from research by the Michigan Education Department. Parents who cannot answer yes to each question should never blame anyone but themselves for their boys’ problems.
* Have you established a daily family routine that provides time and a quiet place to study, assigning responsibility for household chores, being firm about bedtime and having dinner together?
* Do you monitor out-of-school activities, set limits on TV watching, check up on your children when you are not home and arrange for after-school activities and supervised care?
* Do you model the value of learning, self-discipline and hard work, communicating through questioning and conversation and demonstrating that achievement comes from working hard?
* Do you express high but realistic expectations for achievement, setting goals and standards appropriate for your children’s age and maturity, recognizing and encouraging special talents and informing friends and family about successes?
* Do you encourage your children’s development and progress in school, maintaining a warm and supportive home, showing interest in school, helping with homework, discussing the value of a good education and possible career options and staying in touch with teachers and school staff?
* Do you encourage reading, writing and discussions among family members, reading to your children, listening to your children read and talking about what is being read?
I can almost guarantee that parents who answered yes have boys who do well in school. Parents who genuinely want to get involved in their children’s learning can visit the Pinellas School Board’s website, pcsb.org. I was amazed at the wealth of helpful programs described there. Parents without computers at home can visit a nearby public library.
Here is my Nehemiah-style question to FAST members: Will you establish no-excuses parent-involvement assemblies to encourage black parents to become responsible for their children’s learning — starting at home? Yes or no?
Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.