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Virginia Journal of Education


We're Gonna Have a Party

We need to celebrate the academic achievements of our students, says the former head of the National Urban League.

by Hugh B. Price

Most of the energy, resources and policymaking devoted to improving schools and closing achievement gaps is concentrated on testing and teaching, turning around failing schools, or creating escape routes for kids. This is perfectly understandable. But it overlooks another important facet of the solution: the need for community groups to pitch in by creating a culture of achievement and encouraging learning. 
However, we shouldn’t overlook that constructive community organizing can contribute to improved student performance, stronger support for better-qualified teachers, and higher school-community trust, according to a study by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Genuinely valuing youngsters and frequently recognizing them for their accomplishments, no matter how modest, helps to stoke motivation, and therefore achievement. No one doubts that communities can play an instrumental role in encouraging children to strive to do better in school and in enabling them to bask in the glow of being celebrated as achievers. 

In 1997, when I headed the National Urban League, we launched a Campaign for African-American Achievement whose ambitious goal was to mobilize civic and social groups, schools, churches, youth services agencies, libraries and an array of other community organizations to help spread the gospel of achievement. While the campaign admittedly did not live up to my loftiest expectations, we often succeeded in energizing youngsters to take education more seriously and strive to improve academically. 

Later, I wrote a book based on the League’s campaign, titled Mobilizing the Community to Help Students Succeed. In the course of writing it, I came upon persuasive research which substantiates some common-sense notions about the influences that help shape the mindset of students.  For starters, motivation – or the lack thereof – unquestionably plays a role in boosting academic performance. And it’s critically important for young people to feel valued by adults, be they parents, teachers or members of community groups.

Experience from our achievement campaign, as well as other efforts, shows that communities can indeed be mobilized to promote achievement in a variety of ways. The following list is illustrative and by no means exhaustive:     

• Designate September as Achievement Month and herald the resumption of school by holding rallies, street fairs and block parties. To generate buzz around these events, Urban League affiliates generally staged them on the same Saturday all across the country. Schools could team up with Parent-Teacher Associations and community groups could synchronize initiatives like these district- and state-wide for maximum profile and impact.

• Establish community-based honor societies that salute schoolchildren who earn B averages or better in school. The National Achievers Society (NAS) was created by the Urban League movement and functioned, as I fondly used to say, as our national achievement “gang.” It was the brainchild of Israel Tribble, the late husband of Sheila Simmons, who directs NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign. NAS provides a coveted form of recognition and peer camaraderie for students in grades 3-12 who have earned solid, if not stellar, grades in school. We also saluted so-called “believers” whose GPAs fell just shy of a B. I vividly recall attending an NAS induction ceremony at Bayview Baptist Church in San Diego for some 350 African-American students, roughly half of whom were boys. An enthusiastic, overflow crowd of nearly 2,000 parents, grandparents and other well-wishers filled the church that day to cheer the achievers.
• Celebrate youngsters who “Do the right thing.” The League’s campaign wasn’t solely about promoting academic achievement.  It also aimed to encourage young people to become solid citizens by behaving themselves and serving their communities. Our affiliates organized public rallies, awards luncheons and recognition dinners during the school year to pay tribute to young people for accomplishments and contributions that often go unheralded, despite the fact that such experiences help shape a young person’s character and improve the quality of life in their communities.  
• Stage reading contests to boost literacy skills.  During the 2000-01 school year, Ronald Ross, the superintendent in Mount Vernon, NY, proclaimed that any pupil who read 50 books or more would receive a free bicycle. So many more students exceeded the goal than expected that the community sponsors had to scramble to secure enough donated bikes for all the winners.  The Urban League in Winston-Salem, NC, partnered with the public libraries to stage an annual Literacy Olympiad for middle school students. They recruited adult mentors who would visit the libraries with the mentees to pick their books. The students earned points based on the number and difficulty of the books they completed. The Olympiad culminated in a banquet where the youngsters who earned the most points received awards and all of the participants were recognized. 

• Mount achievement fairs akin to county fairs in schools and community centers where children can display projects of their choosing that showcase their academic interests and skills. Like the 4-H members who tout their livestock, students could present their science projects or recite the stories and poems they have composed before an appreciative audience of families and community members.          

• Sponsor recognition ceremonies for graduating high school seniors who earn B averages or better throughout their careers. For more than two decades the Urban League of Westchester County, NY, has teamed up with other community groups to celebrate academically-accomplished graduates in this fashion. The number of honorees has grown steadily over the years.          

• Stage Achievement Day parades. One of my pet ideas is for school officials and community groups to cap the school year by staging parades right down the main thoroughfare in town to celebrate students who successfully clear key academic hurdles, such as graduating from elementary, middle or high school. The same can be done when fourth-graders and eighth-graders pass state or district-wide exams in reading and math. Since so many youngsters are lagging behind academically, I lean toward events that recognize and inspire the maximum number of students. While parades could be held on a strictly local basis, staging them on a synchronized basis across the state would send a compelling signal to young people about the importance of achievement in the eyes of adults.  
Activities such as these should not be viewed as isolated undertakings. The whole idea is to envelop youngsters in a culture of achievement, which means keeping up the drumbeat with a series of activities throughout the year.  

The feedback we received from young people reached by the Urban League’s campaign indicates that our activities made a favorable impression on them. An assessment conducted by the Academy for Educational Development (AED) found that the campaign “fills a long unmet need for recognition on the part of young African-Americans who excel academically.” The AED report continued: “Focus group respondents actually marveled at the turn of events whereby their peers were seeking them out to find out how ‘to get one of those [NAS] jackets.’ ” 

AED also commended the Urban League for creating “believers groups” for students whose grades were not quite good enough to merit induction into the National Achievers Society. Parents, teachers and even academically marginalized students interviewed by AED all note that those groups “promote the philosophy that the community believes that these young people, with extra effort, can become tomorrow’s Achievers.”

Since teachers and principals have a palpable stake in students’ academic success, it behooves educators to team up with community partners willing to enlist in a concerted effort to motivate young people to achieve. I could readily imagine the Virginia Education Association, working through local associations, spearheading a state-wide campaign in collaboration with PTAs, service-oriented business clubs, faith-based organizations, and civic and social clubs in the very communities that are most saddled with high achievement gaps.  

The education challenges facing our country exceed the capacity of schools and educators to solve on their own. Real-world experience illustrates the payoff of mobilizing communities to motivate students. We learned from the Urban League’s Achievement Campaign that youngsters will respond if only the adults in the proverbial village bestir themselves to inspire and then recognize them. Given the fateful stakes for the country, the kids and, yes, our teachers, community groups should be recruited as active partners in school reform.     

Price is a visiting professor in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He previously served as president of the National Urban League and is the author of Mobilizing the Community to Help Students Succeed. 



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