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On September 17, 1954, I was born in a house on West 37th Street in a quiet, predominantly White neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles, and am a product of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). (You can stop calculating with your extremities. I'm 54.) When we moved further south to Watts in 1959, I entered kindergarten at 111th Street Elementary School, and then excitedly attended first grade at the brand new 112th Street Elementary School, which was closer to home. From my fourth-grade classroom I watched them tear down old factory buildings just to the north of the playground in order to make way for a brand new Catholic high school they called Verbum Dei. Both elementary schools were adjacent to the new, unfinished, sprawling Nickerson Gardens Housing Projects-L.A.'s largest-where my parents eventually raised all nine of us near Imperial Hwy. and Central Ave. What was 112th Street School like in 1966 when I graduated sixth grade as compared to now? A quick chronology answers the question.
"When [Principle Roberta] Benjamin arrived in 1966, the school had the worst test scores in the city," says the Los Angeles Times Magazine (January 5, 1992). "One block away sits the Nickerson Gardens housing project," it continues, "Ground Zero for the Crips and Bloods. At night, gunshots are as common as bird song; the odds that a male teen-ager will make it to adulthood are worse than in Bangladesh." Fast forward forty years from graduation. The May 24, 2006, issue of the Los Angeles Times newspaper reads: "By conventional measures, 112th Street Elementary is a failing school. Its standardized test scores are among the lowest in California. Fewer than one-third of its students are considered proficient in math, fewer than a fifth in English....Most of the students live in Nickerson Gardens, a housing project known for being violent and gang-infested."
About a year ago, yet another Times article points out that not much has changed in the over forty-two years since I left 112th, despite the valiant efforts of the current principal: "Brenda Manuel, the principal of 112th Street Elementary School in Watts, knows the challenges facing urban educators as well as anyone. Her students face daily obstacles that would defeat most adults: poverty, crime, gang violence, broken families. Manuel has fought to make their school a safe haven, and to give them opportunities that will expand their horizons. But she wants more. Last week, she bent the ear of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa when he came to 112th Street for its annual career day." If you hit Black children with sub-par education during the crucial formative years, you set the tone for the rest of their lives. So, young graduates from 112th may ask today, "Who dey be foolin' wif dis schoolin'?"
Gompers Junior High School was after 112th. Finishing three years there I graduated and excitedly attended the newly-built Alain Le Roy Locke High School which, as a Green Dot School, I'll talk more about next week. After spending my tenth and eleventh grades at Locke, I transferred to David Starr Jordan High School in Watts. All of the aforementioned schools belong to LAUSD which, as a district, is having abysmal problems. According to a July 2008 KABC Channel 7 news report, "The LAUSD dropout rate is 33.6 percent," with a "40 percent dropout rate for African-American students." So what do we do with all this? Well, we can wax philosophical as to the complex compound problems of society from a historical perspective that contribute magnanimously to the failure of public school systems to educate our Black youth; but, over four decades of such rumination have ended in defeat over at 112th Street. So, risking oversimplification of the multifaceted problems associated with educating our children, some have asserted that three basic questions need to be asked: Where do the problems lie? Who's to blame for said problems? And how do we fix them?
Instead of finger pointing, we do well as a community to examine what has worked for us in the distant past. What hasn't worked is relying on America's public school system to educate Black youth. This shouldn't be surprising since in this same America it was a violation of the law for a Black person to learn how to read and write. Wittingly or unwittingly, this law is still essentially in effect; they just enforce it in other ways. Really, why are we relying on a broken system to fix our problems? Again, what should we do? Well, let's look at what should be the case-the ideal situation-before we consider all that is wrong in our communities that prevent our children from obtaining a good education. In doing the connect-the-dots exercises as school children, we had to know what the figure looked like to know that we did it right. Here are the dots:
It Starts With You: Instill good morals in your child! Teach them right from wrong, and set the right example! Having a university education without morality is like having an expensive car without fuel to drive it. God-given morality should first drive our lives. Then, educate yourself parents. The tools are out there. If you don't know, learn the three R's: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Some Blacks recently freed from slavery taught themselves a basic education when they didn't have a public school system for us. In setting an example for his subjects, Moses the African (a renowned educator) wrote that God said the king "must write" and "must read...all the days of his life, in order that he may learn." (Deut. 17:18, 19) You can't teach your child something you don't know, and it's never too late to learn! As a university instructor, my oldest student was a sweet, rich, little old 84-year-old White lady. She said she just wanted to get a college education before she died. You don't have to do this. Just learn the basics.
A Good Marriage: A solid home life where parents are marriage partners is fertile ground for the moral, emotional, and intellectual growth of the child. One source wisely notes that "Marriage should exist before the children arrive, and it is intended to remain long after they leave home." After stating that "any raising of children is only a phase of marriage, not the basis of it," this same article concluded: "If you make time for your spouse and work as a team during your child rearing years, your marriage will grow strong as your children grow older. What better example could you set for your children?"
Good Parenting: In quoting God, Moses the African wrote: "Write these commandments that I've given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. (Deut. 6:6, 7; Message) "Teach your children right from wrong, and when they are grown they will still do right." (Prov. 22:6; Contemporary English Version) If you're parents, both of you should be your child's favorite teachers. What if you disagree as teachers often do? "Pick a regular time each week to talk about child-training issues, and openly discuss any disagreements you may have. Try to see your spouse's point of view, and respect the fact that your spouse has his or her own relationship with the child." Next week, more dots. Until then...Amen.
Dr. Firpo Carr can be reached at 800.501.2713 or