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Enlisting the Community
To Promote Achievement


Concerned that many urban students, especially African-American ones, were underachieving in school, Hugh B. Price made community involvement in local schools a focus of his tenure at the National Urban League as well as the subject of a book. Included: Suggestions for rallying the community around student achievement.

Hugh B. Price ascribes to the philosophy that it takes a village -- or at least a neighborhood -- to educate a child. Price, a nonresident Senior Fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institute and John L. Weinberg/Goldman Sachs visiting professor of public and international affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, wrote "for educators who wish to mobilize their own communities to support student success," he wrote. Price offers examples of ways a community can motivate students in urban schools, including assemblies, book-reading contests, and community-based honor societies.

Price talked with Education World about his strategies and why he thinks community involvement in education is so critical.

Hugh B. Price

Education World: What was the impetus for the book?

Hugh B. Price: When I headed the National Urban League, the centerpiece of my tenure was our Campaign for African-American Achievement. We launched the campaign because we were deeply concerned that far too many black youngsters were performing below their potential in school and not as committed to education as they need to be in order to become self-reliant adults and informed citizens. We were convinced that community, civic, and religious groups could play an important role in spreading the gospel of achievement and motivating children to do better in school.

Across the country, local Urban League affiliates staged a wide variety of events that succeeded in doing just that. After leaving the league, I continued to give speeches about the Achievement Campaign, which were very well received. It occurred to me that our community mobilization might serve as the basis for a book. I proposed that to members of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. They enthusiastically embraced the proposition. When the book was published last summer, ASCD sent it to all of roughly 100,000 members, which is very exciting.

EW: What is behind the negative attitude toward academic success so often found in urban schools?

"We were convinced that community, civic, and religious groups could play an important role in spreading the gospel of achievement and motivating children to do better in school."

Price: This is a fascinating and complicated question. I believe there are several factors. Some youngsters succumb to the intimidating pressure of peers who aren't into education. Some children are reared in households by parents and caregivers who aren't very engaged in monitoring their youngsters' education, who didn't have successful experiences in school themselves, or who lack the self-confidence or knowledge to be effective watchdogs and supporters. [Also,] there are those whose lives are so disorderly that they do not and cannot serve as examples and sources of inspiration for the children, and/or who are so young or facing so many issues themselves that they aren't well equipped for the responsibilities of parenthood. Some children have the resilience to overcome those forces and manage to latch onto adult mentors -- obviously including teachers -- who help them navigate the challenges. Others who are reared without achievement-related values and developmental supports have a much tougher time in school and in life.

EW: What are some of the best ways to encourage members of the broader community -- not just parents -- to get involved in schools?

Price: To begin with, you have to jump-start community involvement by convening these kinds of groups to urge them to take on this assignment. This can be done by community and civic leaders, just as our Urban League affiliates did. Or the local school board and superintendent could invite community groups to partner with the schools in mounting these kinds of events.

Once the team is enlisted, the next step is to figure out what kinds of activities to stage. Its important to design things that reach children who are on the margins academically and try to motivate them to improve. Some of the best examples that I write about in the book include back-to-school rallies at the start of the school year, book reading contests, achievement fairs, and achievement "gangs" or community-based honor societies for youngsters who earn B averages or better in school. It would be exciting -- and unprecedented -- to see Achievement Day parades featuring all of the schoolchildren who pass the state exams in reading and math. It's important to stage more than one event and to space them out over the school year so there's a constant drumbeat for achievement that reaches into all of the nooks and crannies of the community.

EW: What do educators need to know to implement effective community involvement programs?

Price: For starters, they need to enlist community partners who are serious about promoting achievement and who deliver on their promises. They should avoid groups that showboat but don't stick to the task or, as we used to say, "play well with others." It's important to plan a community mobilization strategy carefully and then execute. It's easy to focus on the highest achievers and academic superstars. But they'll be fine. The key is to craft strategies that reach youngsters who are on the cusp academically, who need to be encouraged and motivated to do better. Youngsters who are reticent about achieving need protective cover. They need to belong to peer groups that embrace achievement. So the keys are finding collaborators who are serious and then devising activities that reach children who need encouragement and recognition in order to climb the ladder academically.

"The keys are finding collaborators who are serious and then devising activities that reach children who need encouragement and recognition in order to climb the ladder academically."

EW: In your experience, how does broad community involvement make a difference in students performance?

Price: The Annenberg Institute for School Reform issued a study a year or so ago that documented that constructive community organizing can contribute to improved student performance, strengthened support for better qualified teachers, and heightened school-community trust. Independent evaluators surveyed youngsters who were reached by the activities of the Urban League's Achievement Campaign. The schoolchildren told them, among other things, that they had more positive attitudes about school and were more inclined to aim for college. Lastly, I'll never forget the sheer enthusiasm of the children who were inducted into the League's National Achievers Society and who had no ambivalence whatsoever about doing well in school. Or the youngsters at one of our "doing the right thing" events who asked what took the adults in the community so long to find them and celebrate their accomplishments? So I've seen the impact through research and real-world experience.

This e-interview with Hugh Price is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Urban Education
Minority Students

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Published 09/21/2009