By the bootstraps 

Everybody is discriminating in favor of the person who is educated," Orange County school Superintendent Ron Blocker told a church full of school officials June 2. Given the numbers Blocker released which showed black school children lagging considerably behind their white and Hispanic counterparts, the superintendent's statement was meant to add an urgency to the gathering. "Without an education, our youth are guaranteeing they will be second-class citizens in the future," he said.

Blocker emphasized the strides the school district has made with across-the-board increases in FCAT scores since he took control of the school district two years ago. But the fact remains that while 60 percent of white children can read at what is considered a proficient level, only 25 percent of black children can do the same.

The reasons are the same in Orange County as they are in the rest of the country: poverty, a high rate of mobility (children leaving and returning to school) and what George W. Bush has referred to as the soft bigotry of low expectations.

A committee advising Blocker on the African-American community has devised a strategy to elevate black student achievement. To off-set the high mobility rate, the district plans to increase teacher training and institute a uniform core curriculum policy. To combat poverty, the district hopes to put more books in children's homes. And to diminish low expectations, the district will try to increase enrollment into honors classes.

How far the district goes toward achieving those goals will likely depend on how well the black community unites to tutor low-performing students. Already there are encouraging signs. Last year, a group of volunteers of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church began tutoring 54 students of Richmond Heights Elementary School. The students -- third, fourth and fifth graders -- were barely able to read. The Mount Pleasant volunteers tutored them every Saturday for six months. The result? Each of the 54 kids passed this year's FCAT.

That tutoring program was adopted by the philanthropic 100 Black Men group. Twenty-five 100 Black Men volunteers will tutor and mentor students of Jones High School, one of Orlando's black historic landmarks. In addition, 100 Black Men will host a fund-raiser June 26 at Church Street Station. (Former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young is expected to attend.) Proceeds will fund four years of college for three Jones students.

Still, there are three other high schools with large black populations, as well as four middle schools and 14 elementary schools. Who will help them? Blocker is hoping other groups step forward. But as one speaker said, talking to black leaders in the audience at Monday's meeting was like preaching to the choir. They were already on board.

It was the people who didn't attend who need to hear the message. There's no guarantee they will mobilize because a few impassioned souls decided to begin emphasizing education. Blocker, though, says he's expecting enough civic organizations to follow through so more meetings aren't necessary. "I'm hoping that in six months we won't need inspirational talks," he said. "We need a sustained effort to help kids achieve. It can't be a one-shot deal."

More by William Dean Hinton


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