Supporting black colleges helps charter schools

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The greatest country on earth is awash in fragile communities in which less than 20 percent of adults are literate, fourth graders lack proficiency in basic reading and math, jobs are scarce, and incarceration is as common as college.

These fragile communities are black, white, brown and yellow. They exist in places as different as Appalachia and Fort Lauderdale.

I know. I grew up in one. And had it not been for my mother’s choice to take me out of a traditional public school and take advantage of the educational opportunity offered at a pilot magnet school, I would never have become a successful lawyer, corporate executive and now the head of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents 47 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — schools established when black students had no option other than segregated institutions. These schools have a long history of educating some of the nation’s most influential and successful African-American doctors, educators, lawyers, business leaders and entrepreneurs.

It is through the lens of HBCUs that we have come to see that the plight of students trapped in poor schools, often in fragile communities, is not only an economic challenge for this nation, but an issue of national security.

We have a unique understanding at our colleges. We know what it takes to help students who are most economically disadvantaged and educationally vulnerable. And we know that when students are well prepared in primary and secondary grades, they are more likely to learn and to graduate from higher education than if they were disserved.

We also have a vested interest in ensuring that the children who arrive as freshmen on our campuses are extraordinarily well-prepared. Although some of our campuses have experienced enrollment growth recently, the challenge we increasingly face is how to graduate young people who arrive as college freshmen woefully under-prepared academically. Currently, about 35 percent of HBCU students graduate within 6 years of starting their education. As federal and state governments refuse to fund remedial education for university students and demand higher graduation rates from post-secondary institutions, the only way HBCUs can survive is if the students who show up are college ready when they leave the PK-12 system.

Better parental choices are, frankly, a matter of life or death for many of our country’s HBCUs. And the only way to impact that is to ensure that high quality secondary school choices abound and that parents are aware of the options that exist to help them take their families out of traditional district schools that have long failed their precious youth.

HBCUs have stepped up to the plate to provide this leadership. Howard University, for example, started a charter school called Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, which is preparing the next generation of leaders for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This area of focus is of particular importance because African-Americans receive just 7.6 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees and 4.5 percent of doctorates in STEM.

Another example of HBCUs taking matters into their own hands can be found in Tallahassee’s Florida A&M University, which opened the Developmental Research School in 1877. The Research School gives a nationally competitive college preparatory education to each of its students and serves as a state-of-the-art laboratory for education innovation. Throughout its 140 years of existence, the school has graduated thousands of students who have gone on to become leaders in their chosen professions.

These are some of the things we are doing to address fragile communities. If we don’t do it, who will?

It’s become clear the organization that once supported the greatest needs of our disadvantaged is no longer interested in that work. The NAACP recently came out and again called for a moratorium on charter schools, absurdly claiming that the promise of charters never materialized.

This was preceded by American Federation of Teachers boss Randi Weingarten’s attacks on school choice, referring to charters as the “polite cousins of segregation.”

We cannot afford this kind of issue-myopia in our society. The stakes are simply too high as fragile communities continue a downward spiral. The only solution is to improve educational outcomes and that begins with increasing school choices for parents. We have seen the dangerous domino effect if kids in these communities are forced to stay in failing schools.

And while the NAACP and Weingarten seem to be perfectly comfortable with that scenario, we are not.

We will continue to fight for these fragile communities. And if the NAACP continues to reject the educational opportunities school choice provides them, they risk becoming irrelevant — or worse — an enemy of the very people they claim to fight for.

Johnny C. Taylor Jr. is the president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the largest organization exclusively representing the black college community. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnnyCTaylorJr.

Source: Times Record News