Upgrade for Minority Education

Groups historically underserved by United States schools have united to draft an action plan. NATIONAL REPORT

TO help close the educational gap in the United States, the nation's 13 million minority students might be asked to answer the school bell nearly year-round. And they would also have the opportunity for school-supervised activities an extra 90 minutes each day. If this sounds like torture to the pupils, it has the ring of needed reform to the drafters of the recently released ``Quality Education for Minorities (QEM)'' action plan.

According to project director Shirley McBay, dean for student affairs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass., studies indicate that minority students are half a term behind in what they've learned after third grade, and a full school year behind by the sixth grade. Even so, she says many good initiatives are underway.

``The situation isn't hopeless,'' Dr. McBay says. ``We are really assured by the hundreds of programs out there that are working. One of the problems is that sometimes people don't know about them, even in the same region.''

Comprehensive plan

The QEM project, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, has brought together educators, community leaders, students, parents, and policymakers during nine regional meetings held over the last two years. Together, several hundred participants helped to produce the first comprehensive national educational strategy by and for historically underserved minority Americans - blacks, Mexican-Americans, Indians, native Alaskans, and Puerto Ricans.

Insiders agree that reports can easily get lost in the shuffle. Mary Futrell, the immediate past president of the National Education Association, remembers that ``during the 1980s, there was a report coming out almost every month. Many of those reports lumped all children together.''

She says this one is different. ``By dealing with a specific student population, it is more hard-hitting and candid. I think it will have an impact.''

Some of the strategies may sound familiar, such as giving greater attention to preschool education and better counseling, but others are far less predictable. Examples of strategies

An optional 13th school year that takes students onto college campuses, thereby acquainting them with the higher educational environment and possibly spurring them on to further academic learning.

A program of ``loan forgiveness'' for minority students, who can retire their educational debts to federal and state governments by agreeing to teach for an agreed-on number of years.

Residential academies where minority youth can follow intellectual pursuits the way prep-school students do.

The recommendations cover what McBay calls ``the entire pipeline,'' from the preschool to the postgraduate experience.

John Smith, a special assistant for minority education to the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, expresses concern about the report's ambition. ``I work with a lot of members of Congress; they are busy people who will look at critical recommendations on one or two pages, but [probably not] 56 recommendations,'' he says.

McBay, however, says a piecemeal approach involves problems. ``You can get students ready in grades K through 3, but if their fourth-grade teachers aren't prepared for students who've had enriching experiences, then, in a sense, you lose the gain,'' she explains.

The need for continuity has been addressed conceptually in the 100-page report, and practically in the establishment of a nonprofit organization to carry out the vision. Using the report as a springboard, the QEM Network hopes to implement some of the major recommendations by collaborating with various groups.

``I just hope there's enough muscle to get this thing going,'' says Janice Petrovich, national executive director of ASPIRA, a Latino youth-advancement organization. ``There's a growing concern about minority education in many sectors, but there's still a lot of wheel-spinning.''

Although the project targets educationally neglected minorities, it has attempted to keep the best interests of all students in mind. ``We're really talking about quality education for everyone,'' McBay says. ``But if we can improve the worst school systems, then we can free up resources now being spent on remediation.''

The cost of remedial programs for colleges and universities, she adds, is in the millions, and business and industry spend $44 billion annually in retraining people without needed basic skills. Changing population trends

An economic imperative is obviously emerging to deal with what a QEM statement describes as ``the needless waste of minority talent and potential.'' The statistical trends underline the importance of progress in this regard. By the year 2025, minorities are expected to form one-third of the US population, and be in the majority a generation or two after that.

There's another element of timeliness, too, since President Bush and the state governors are formulating a national agenda following last September's unprecedented educational summit. Their game plan is scheduled to be out in February.

The QEM project calls for restructuring schools. The year 2000 has been offered as a realistic target date.

To carry out the project's action plan necessitates increased government spending. In many cases, a reallocation of existing funding, not new funding, is required.

Good education is a bargain

Even with a higher price tag, a good education is viewed as a bargain. McBay cites $28,000 as the cost of incarcerating a maximum-security prisoner for a year. That is significantly more than it costs to attend even the most expensive American universities. And it is far greater than $4,209, which was the average spent per public school pupil during 1987-88, according to the Education Commission of the States.

The minorities education project calls for its largest outlays, of $5.5 billion and $4.5 billion, respectively, to fully fund the Chapter I and Head Start programs, which support quality preschool and elementary schooling for low-income and minority students.

To extend the school year from 9 to 11 months in the 25 largest predominantly nonwhite school systems would cost $1 billion, if limited to every third year, following grades 3, 6, and 9.

Longer school year goal

The purpose of the longer school year is not simply to increase learning, but to prevent learning loss.

``There are studies,'' McBay says, ``that show that [economically] disadvantaged students lose 80 percent of what they learned over the summer, and that's because they don't have reinforcing experiences during those months.

Assuming that the lessons are reasonably stimulating, the extended schedule should not overly tax students, says Venetta Jones, dean of the school of education at Morgan State University in Baltimore. For her, it's not a matter of pupil acceptance though. ``It's like at the dinner table, a child isn't given a choice between spinach and cotton candy,'' she says, making the point that educators must make responsible, not necessarily popular, decisions.

The 11-month concept is so important, the QEM report emphasizes, that ``[r]educed summer vacation plans and lack of air conditioning should not be allowed to stand in the way of an extended school year ....'' Even though teachers would not be asked to teach every summer, they would be paid year-round to be in the classroom or to develop multicultural curricula.

The idea behind extending the school day by at least an hour and a half is twofold: to ``provide reinforcing experiences to students'' and to ease the care-provider role of working parents.

One pitfall that must be avoided, the report concludes, is pigeonholing students into academic tracks, thereby closing options along the way. Support is given to promoting schools within schools, so students can be part of smaller learning environments.

McBay says that much is at stake - ``our whole society as we know it'' - in ratcheting up minority education. To a degree, the QEM plan may even be seen as an emancipation proclamation to the educationally shackled.

There is a fair of amount of skepticism about where education leads in minority neighborhoods, and a key part of the QEM Network mandate is to revitalize a faith in what education can mean in these communities.

``If it's a matter of getting all the trappings one has from being successful, some people can get get those much quicker ... through illegal means,'' McBay says. ``The message that must go out, however, is that education is really freedom.''

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