We Know What Works. Let’s Do It

by Leonard Pitts Miami Herald lpitts@miamiherald.com
This will be the last What Works column.
I reserve the right to report occasionally on any program I run across that shows results in saving the lives and futures of African American kids. But this is the last in the series I started 19 months ago to spotlight such programs.
Let me begin by thanking you for your overwhelming response to my request for nominations, and to thank everyone from every program who allowed me to peek behind the scenes. From the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City to SEI (Self-Enhancement Inc.) in Portland, Ore., I have been privileged and uplifted to see dedicated people doing amazing work.
I am often asked whether I’ve found common denominators in all these successful programs, anything we can use in helping kids at risk. The short answer is, yes. You want to know what works? Longer school days and longer school years work. Giving principals the power to hire good teachers and fire bad ones works. High expectations work. Giving a teacher freedom to hug a child who needs hugging works. Parental involvement works. Counseling for troubled students and families works. Consistency of effort works. Incentives work. Field trips that expose kids to possibilities you can’t see from their broken neighborhoods, work.
Indeed, the most important thing I’ve learned is that none of this is rocket science. We already know what works. What we lack is the will to do it. Instead, we have a hit-and-miss patchwork of programs achieving stellar results out on the fringes of the larger, failing, system. Why are they the exception and not the rule? If we know what works, why don’t we simply do it? Nineteen months ago when I started, I asked Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone why anyone should pay to help him help poor kids in crumbling neighborhoods. He told me, “Someone’s yelling at me because I’m spending $3,500 a year on ‘Alfred.’ Alfred is 8. OK, Alfred turns 18. No one thinks anything about locking him up for 10 years at $60,000 a year.” Amen. Forget the notion of a moral obligation to uplift failing children. Consider the math instead. If that investment of $3,500 per annum creates a functioning adult who pays taxes and otherwise contributes to the system, why would we pass that up in favor of creating, 10 years later, an adult who drains the system to the tune of $60,000 a year for his incarceration alone, to say nothing of the other costs he foists upon society? How does that make sense? Nineteen months later, I have yet to find a good answer.
Instead, I find passivity. “Save the Children,” Marvin Gaye exhorted 27 years ago. But we are losing the children in obscene numbers. Losing them to jails, losing them to graves, losing them to illiteracy, teen parenthood, and other dead-ends and cul-de-sacs of life. But I have yet to hear America – or even African America – scream about it. Does no one else see a crisis here? “I don’t think that in America, especially in black America, we can arrest this problem unless we understand the urgency of it,” says Tony Hopson Sr., founder of SEI. “When I say urgency, I’m talking 9/11 urgency, I’m talking Hurricane Katrina urgency, things that stop a nation. I don’t think in black America this is urgent enough. Kids are dying every single day. I don’t see where the NAACP, the Urban League, the Black Caucus, have decided that the fact that black boys are being locked up at alarming rates means we need to stop the nation and have a discussion about how we’re going to eradicate that as a problem. It has not become urgent enough. If black America don’t see it as urgent enough, how dare us think white America is going to think it’s urgent enough?”
In other words, stand up. Get angry. Stop accepting what is clearly unacceptable. I’ll bet you that works, too.

One thought on “We Know What Works. Let’s Do It”

  1. Amen to that. And thank you for making sure more of us see this, Laurie. We do not get the daily paper, so I miss at least half of Pitts’ columns; while they can be extreme at times, they are usually on the extreme of expecting people to stand up and make noise to help themselves instead of waiting for a new handout to buy them out of a situation they had a pretty good hand in getting themselves into. He is not one to claim that African Americans have had it fair in the US over the past 300 years, but he is also not one to consistently call “foul” either. The “fringe” of the liberal extreme can try to make noise, and the conservative minority can pay lip service to caring about the achievment gap, but until the majority of the middle cares enough, the future for many African Americans will not look much different. Until we all care about educating our children to be productive members of society (ALL of them, not only the ones falling behind, nor only the ones who could be, but often aren’t, racing ahead), not much will change.
    It takes money to educate a child to grow into an adult who can be productive and effective; but it takes a lot more money (10-12 times as much, annually) to lock them up as adults when they can’t handle the “real world”.

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