A Consensus Education Agenda for Blacks in Illinois
On September 23-24, 2010, the Illinois Committee on Black Concerns in Higher Education (ICBCHE) hosted its annual professional conference in cooperation with the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus Foundation on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The conference, titled Bridging the Academy and the State Legislature, focused on ways in which educational and legislative leaders from the Black community might work together to address the pressing concerns facing Blacks at all educational levels.
One key recommendation to come from that conference was the need to gather a list of educational concerns, and ideas to address those concerns, from educational and community leaders in all regions of the state of Illinois. This collection of the best thinking of experts from our communities could then be assembled into a document that might guide ICBCHE advocacy efforts and inform the policy discussions of state legislators. As ICBCHE Chair Dr. Michael Toney stated at the September 2010 conference, and many times thereafter, “We have the expertise in our own community. We know the problems, and we have the best practice models that can address those problems.”
To gather this collection of concerns and suggested solutions, a subcommittee of the ICBCHE Steering Committee, working with members of the Black Caucus and several key community organizations, began planning and hosting a series of town-hall meetings at locations throughout Illinois, where educational and community leaders were encouraged to participate in day-long discussions about the educational issues facing Black Illinois citizens, from pre-school through college and beyond. Beginning in April and continuing through December of 2012, opinions and ideas were gathered at town hall meetings held at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, the Chicago Urban League, Union Baptist Church in Springfield, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. This Consensus Education Agenda for Blacks in Illinois represents a collection of those issues and suggestions that were most commonly and frequently raised across all of the town-hall meetings.
The discussions held at the town-hall meetings yielded six primary themes:
Theme #1: The expectations we have for our students, and the expectations they have for themselves.
Comments and suggestions in this thematic area focused largely on the creation of a college-bound and college-attending culture for our students. Several participants expressed concern that there is a negative stigma among some Black youth that it is not “cool” to learn or to strive for academic success, and also cited the presence and influence of a “prison culture” that glamorized criminal activity. Suggestions included a more focused effort to share the “good news” about Blacks in education – to more openly and actively celebrate the accomplishments of outstanding students. Discussion in this area also pointed to the need for more faculty and staff of color to serve as role models for our students, with specific references made to the hiring of those individuals completing the Diversifying Faculty in Illinois (DFI) program.
A second key area of focus within this theme was the impact of teachers and professors on the success of the students. Low expectations from those leading classes lead to low student outcomes. Suggestions included mandatory cultural competency programs for all instructors at all educational levels, as well as the mandating of teachers engaging in early intervention activities, such as mid-semester assessments, to help students who might be having difficulty improve while there is still time to do so.
Theme #2: The fostering of greater connections between education and the community, the legislature, and specifically with parents.
Much of the discussion in this area stressed the importance of parental support and involvement, and recognized that many parents are ill equipped to provide such support because of their own educational shortcomings. Many parents who have not attended college themselves cannot help their students navigate the college application and decision process. Some parents may not feel their own academic skills are sufficient to help students with their homework, or to monitor students’ progress in getting homework done. Suggestions included the establishment of Parent Institutes that would teach parents ways they can be supportive of their children’s educational journeys.
Other comments along this theme focused on making educational facilities more accessible to the community at large. If an educational facility is seen as part of the community, then members of the community are more likely to be actively engaged in the educational, as well as the community, activities that take place in that facility. Making buildings open for community organization meetings, using athletic facilities for community leagues and programs, and encouraging increased participation in local school councils and other such advisory/governance activities were all suggestions to help foster such connections. There was also ample discussion about the need for all citizens to reach out to state legislators to share concerns and offer support.
Theme #3: The resources that are available for the education of our students at all levels.
The budget crisis in Illinois dominated much of the discussion in this thematic area, with participants expressing concern that many of the programs and services that have been cut from education budgets at all levels are having disproportionate impacts on poor communities, and specifically on communities of color. Examples of this include the elimination of all HECA grants, the trimming back of funds available for DFI, and the scaling back of extracurricular activities and the lack of availability of many AP or honors courses and fine arts programs in many K-12 districts. There was also much discussion regarding the ongoing call for a funding formula for K-12 education in Illinois that is not tied to local property taxes, a formula that produces gross inequities in the resources available to students from district to district.
The suggested solutions offered along this theme did not directly address the expressed concerns, as those concerns were deemed to require “political” solutions. Resource suggestions included the increased use (and teaching) of technology, curriculum enhancements that expanded the presence of Black history, professional development for teachers so that they can bring new ideas and enhanced skills back to the classroom, and increased efforts to make schools and school zones safe. Also, a need was expressed to do a better job of making students and parents aware of those resources that are available for our students.
Theme #4: The preparation of our students to compete in a global marketplace.
The focus of these discussions was career literacy – the need to make students aware of the career opportunities that are available to them, and the need to make sure students are academically prepared to pursue those opportunities. The availability of career programs in the health professions at several community colleges was emphasized, as was the need for such professionals in our communities and the general availability of jobs in the health professions. Technology and language skills were also discussed as vital to future professional success, with a suggestion that younger students be required to learn a second language.
Two other significant recommendations emerged in this area of discussion. One
was the expansion of business/school partnership. This was seen as a vehicle for bringing additional resources into the schools and also providing for career exploration opportunities. The second was the need to “prepare” our students for the world that awaits them by sharing our legacy of struggle with them, and being honest about the persistence of institutional racism.
Theme #5: The interconnectivity and interdependence of all levels of the educational pipeline.
This area of focus generated a great deal of discussion on the educational pipeline, and how it should be approached as one continuous model. There was mention of previous efforts along this line of thinking such as the P-20 council. Concerns were expressed about the lack of alignment in the curriculum, suggesting that elementary school does not adequately prepare students for high school, and high school does not adequately prepare students for college. This lack of alignment also led to the concern that material not learned in earlier grades was very difficult to “make up” in later grades that might never be expected to cover or review that missed material. Suggested solutions included more support for academic enrichment programs and
other similar pipeline activities, expansion of early intervention activities at all levels, adding critical thinking skills development to the K-12 curriculum, further exploration of those models currently looking to align curriculum P-20, and the development or expansion of bridge programs that help students transition from elementary to high school and from high school to college.
Theme #6: The elimination of barriers to college access and successful degree completion.
Discussion in this thematic area focused much more on problems than on solutions. The general consensus was that all of these were major problems that needed significant solutions. The college access barriers discussed included the continued use of standardized tests, that have been proven to contain cultural bias, as a key factor in admissions decisions, and the affordability of a college education. Successful degree completion concerns included the tendency for programs that support minority students to be the first to be cut or consolidated in times of budget crisis, the continued lack of hiring and promoting Black faculty and staff on college and university campuses, and overall concerns about campus climate and making college campuses feel welcoming to Black students and other students of color.