Monday, August 27, 2007

Where is the village that will educate the child?

By Ernesto Nieto and Michael Soto
Special to the Star-Telegram
August 26, 2007

For most Fort Worth 5-year-olds, this week marks the beginning of kindergarten and the start of an academic career in the Texas public school system. It's a week of brilliant promise and not a few tears, of trepidation mixed with hopes and dreams.

But if our public schools don't change, dramatically and quickly, too many among this fresh-faced bunch will be left behind by a system that's well-equipped with rhetoric yet woefully short on results.

Urban, predominantly Latino schools such as those in Fort Worth have fared especially poorly of late. The Texas Education Agency has reported that only 81 percent of the Fort Worth school district's Class of 2005 actually graduated with their classmates. Last fall, the Harvard University Civil Rights Project -- using Christopher B. Swanson's Cumulative Promotion Index -- reported that the number of Fort Worth students who completed a high school degree was actually closer to 49 percent.

By either account, we are all failing Fort Worth's children, and it will take an assiduous, sustained and (most of all) collective effort to address their educational needs and our civic and leadership needs as a society.

No one would begrudge a 5-year-old the time, energy and financial resources needed to succeed in kindergarten. That's precisely the kind of investment that all of our kids require.

Teachers and administrators have much to contribute to our children's educational success, but at the beginning of this school year, we'd like to suggest three ways that you might get involved:

If you are part of a local business (from a mom-and-pop store to a multimillion-dollar enterprise) or a community organization (from a church to a neighborhood crime watch to a political interest group), explore how you might alter the culture and thinking of low-income neighborhoods, build community vision and engage youths and their families in reconstructing their perspectives on education and its value to their future success.

Simple incentives -- a free meal for a month's perfect attendance or financial support for a summer enrichment program -- can go a long way. The important thing is to get students, families and institutions involved in a community effort, to initiate dialogue and produce trust and momentum.

Encourage school administrators and teachers to build strong, positive relations with low-income and immigrant families to address their concerns and creativities. This will require the simultaneous cultivation of students' and parents' organizational abilities -- leadership training for the entire family -- and a coordinated array of community-based organizations collaborating with schools and families directly.

Traditional barriers to educational success must be seen not as excuses but rather as challenges to face head on and opportunities to enrich lives.

Be prepared to hold leaders accountable in public forums and at the ballot box. At the same time, recognize that the path to increased educational access and improved educational outcomes is long and sometimes thorny; when leaders speak candidly and make tough decisions, offer your vocal support.

To the proud parents of the newest kindergarten class, we say: Congratulations and best wishes. Like you, we truly believe that your child is meant to change the world for the better, and we want you to beam with pride as he or she crosses the stage, high school diploma in hand, in 13 short years. We hope that your child ponders not whether to go to college but where.

Together, let's change the world one school district, one neighborhood, one school, one classroom -- one kindergartener -- at a time.

Ernesto Nieto is president and founder of the National Hispanic Institute. Michael Soto is associate professor of English at Trinity University and trustee of the National Hispanic Institute.

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