MLK50

Martin Luther King Jr.’s hope for equal education in Memphis still a dream, new book says

PHOTO: Courtesy of Special Collections Department, University Libraries, University of Memphis Libraries
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to a mass rally in Memphis on April 3, 1968, one day before his assassination.

In the 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, his dream of an education system providing equal economic opportunity to black children remains unfulfilled, according to a new book published by a Memphis advocacy group.

“An Education Dream,” edited by Mendell Grinter, the executive director of Campaign for School Equity, includes interviews with Memphis and national education leaders and documents major changes in the city’s school system. The book was published in conjunction with the National Civil Rights Museum and its yearlong commemoration of King’s legacy as the 50th anniversary of his death approaches April 4.

“The walling off of Negroes from equal education is part of the historical design to submerge him in second-class status,” King said in a 1964 speech as he accepted an award from the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City teachers union. “Therefore, as Negroes have struggled to be free, they have had to fight for the opportunity for a decent education.”

The book cites anemic test scores in the Memphis districts that educate mostly black children and graduation rates below the national average as evidence King’s vision has not been realized.

Grinter, who formed the organization in 2016 after breaking away from a national group advocating for charters and private school vouchers, said Memphis education leaders are still grappling with what Tennessee’s former education chief called “a Jim Crow public education system.”

“With this book, we hope to amplify Dr. King’s assertion that education is one of the cornerstones for economic advancement, celebrate the successes that have been made, and inspire the community to continue working to make Dr. King’s education dream a reality for all children,” Grinter said in a statement.

The book touches on significant milestones in Memphis education history such as the city’s attempt at school integration, Black Monday protests in which teachers and students left school to march to City Hall with a list of demands to improve black representation in the school system, and the more recent merger of the city and county school systems in 2013.

Today, many school leaders say they struggle to educate students from impoverished families, citing an overwhelming number of factors that impede a child’s education that is outside the control of teachers. The book acknowledges those challenges, but insists school systems can do more to deliver quality education to those students, most of whom are children of color.

“Pretending that social conditions independent of schooling have no impact on a student’s trajectory is wishful thinking; using those conditions to excuse schools is irresponsible,” said Daniel Kiel, the director of a documentary about the children who integrated Memphis schools.

John King, who served as U.S. Secretary of Education during the Obama administration, said America’s education system falls short of equality for all children, “but we’ve made progress.”

“I think that’s the American narrative,” he said in his interview. “I carry with me a tremendous sense of urgency about trying to get us closer to that vision of equality of opportunity faster.”

Those quoted in the book include:

  • Chris Caldwell, school board member for Shelby County Schools
  • Earle Fisher, senior pastor of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis
  • Terri Freeman, president of National Civil Rights Museum
  • Howard Fuller, professor of education at Marquette University and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning
  • Kevin Huffman, former Tennessee education commissioner
  • Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform
  • Daniel Kiel, associate professor at the University of Memphis and director of “The Memphis 13” documentary
  • John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education and president and CEO of The Education Trust
  • Cardell Orrin, executive director, Stand for Children Memphis
  • Tami Sawyer, director of diversity and cultural competence at Teach For America Memphis
  • Roblin Webb, executive director of Freedom Preparatory Academy
  • Bobby White, founder and CEO, Frayser Community Schools

Campaign for School Equity plans to host two events to discuss the book. The first will be 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 14, at the National Civil Rights Museum.

The second will be 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, March 16, in New York City in partnership with Democrats for Education Reform, the Walton Family Foundation, The 74, and StudentsFirst New York. (The Walton foundation supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

This story has been updated to note that the Walton Family Foundation supports Chalkbeat as well as the New York City event promoting this book.

extra support

Indianapolis’ new idea to get kids through college: Stop small stumbles from becoming big barriers

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

To reach the city of Indianapolis’ lofty goal of giving every resident access to college, it’s going to take more than money.

It’s going to take a lot of nudging.

Educators know that many students are capable of college coursework and could qualify for financial aid — but too many of them are failing at the logistics of getting into college and sticking with it until they graduate.

That’s why the city’s new education initiative, a key state scholarship program, and private organizations are all looking to improve those nudges — using a human touch to prepare students for college, encourage them to apply, and push them to graduate. The programs use a variety of approaches, such as text messages from business leaders to high schoolers or “college champions” who cheer students on to graduation.

“Whether you’re a first-generation college student, or you’re someone with a lot of college graduates in your family, the process is complicated,” said Matt Impink, executive director of Indy Achieves. “There’s a lot to know, and a lot of deadlines to hit. We want to give them simple guidance about how to get those things done.”

Indy Achieves, the city’s new education initiative, focuses on this need for a greater network of human support, and identifies where students need more check-ins and guidance, particularly students from low-income families who may face extra challenges along the way.

In addition to expanding financial aid opportunities for students, Indy Achieves calls for additional resources and strategies for school counselors, mentors at the high school level for the transition to college, and more guidance for adults seeking college credentials.

One area of focus will be on the state’s 21st Century Scholars program. Even though the needs-based scholarship program covers tuition at Indiana colleges, it’s hard to get students to sign up — more than half of eligible Hoosier students miss out on the opportunity to have the state pay for college.

And while 21st Century Scholars are more likely to go to college and be ready for college-level courses, they often struggle to stay in school and graduate on time, if they do at all. Less than one-third of 21st Century Scholars graduate in four years, and about half graduate within an extended timeline of six years, according to state data. While that puts them ahead of their low-income peers, they’re still falling behind compared to students overall.

Indy Achieves plans to work with middle- and high-school counselors to increase federal financial aid and state scholarship sign-ups. The initiative will also recruit volunteers from the business community this winter to mentor high school seniors through the college transition with in-person meetings and scripted text reminders.

“They’ll be our eyes and ears on the ground with what students are having struggles with, and what we need to do to help point students toward services,” Impink said.

The Indiana Commission for Higher Education also plans to build similar supports into the 21st Century Scholars program next year, asking students to identify a college mentor or “champion” who will encourage them through college.

The tweak comes in part because of results from the Gallup-Purdue Index, which surveys students to measure college outcomes. The survey found that students with emotional support systems — such as mentors, or professors who they felt cared about their success — were more likely to succeed in college and in the workforce.

In recent years, the state has also placed AmeriCorps members — dubbed “ScholarCorps” — at college campuses to advise, coach, and mentor 21st Century Scholars. The program has boosted retention rates, said Jarod Wilson, the commission’s Director of Postsecondary Outreach and Career Transitions.

“If a student has a flat tire, that could just completely change their trajectory and their ability to complete classes that semester,” he said. “Emergency aid — the 21st Century Scholarship doesn’t cover those things, but we’re able to help them navigate the issues through it. There’s a lot more that happens on the holistic side of the student that’s more than just being able to pay for tuition and fees.”

The city and state programs also rely on a web of partner organizations that provide their own mentoring and support for students, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Center for Leadership Development, 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, Boys II Men, and the Starfish Initiative.

The mentoring programs often try to find ways to work together, seeing themselves as complementary rather than competitive.

At the Starfish Initiative, an Indianapolis nonprofit focused on college access and readiness for low-income students, mentoring pairs are carefully curated to develop one-on-one relationships, which the organization said results in more than 75 percent of its students graduating from college. It’s a much more involved program than what the city and state can offer.

The program is serving more than 400 students this year, selecting high-achieving freshmen in need of both financial and emotional supports to match with volunteer mentors. Throughout high school, students participate in an annual leadership camp, make college visits, and talk regularly with their mentors, who take them out to restaurants, see concerts, or watch sports.

“If you think about investing, we believe these are the kids to invest in,” said Starfish Initiative president and CEO Gisele Garraway. “We think if you have a dollar, or if you have an hour of time, where might you get the best return on investment? We think it’s Starfish scholars.”

Through the program, students learn how to write professional emails, meet sign-up deadlines, and find friends with similar goals. They have someone to talk to about career paths, college choices, first loves, and family losses.

Catalina Lua wasn’t sure what to think when her son told her about the Starfish program. Hardly anyone she knew was familiar with the program, and she was wary of trusting her child to a stranger.

But her son, Alejandro, a 14-year-old freshman at Lawrence North High School, wanted to participate, and he was excited to go to the leadership camp and meet the older Starfish scholars. The Luas don’t have extended family living nearby, and Catalina worries about 14 being a tough age.

Alejandro had been playing football for years, but all of a sudden, this year he didn’t want to go. Catalina asked why, and all Alejandro said was that he was losing interest and wanted a break.

They met his mentor, an older man named Dave, who reminds Catalina of a grandpa and who has mentored before. He has stopped by the house to spend time with Alejandro’s family, and taken Alejandro out to restaurants.

He calls Alejandro to ask about school and his interests. They talk about wrestling, the sport that Alejandro got into when he stopped playing football.

“Sometimes I ask him, how was school? And he says just a few words. He doesn’t talk much,” Catalina said. “But I notice when he talks on the phone with Dave, I see he talks more. He says more. So I’m hoping maybe my son will be more comfortable speaking with him.”

Open communication

What do you say to a young child who might be at risk for suicide?

PHOTO: Getty Images

Talking about suicide with young children can feel scary or inappropriate. But Jenna Glover, a child psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, said broaching the subject can save lives.

“We have this fear that if we ask about it we’ll plant a seed,” Glover said. “There is no research to support that, and in fact, there is research that when we ask kids about their suicidal thoughts, they see a decrease in those thoughts.”

The death by suicide of a 9-year-old Denver boy in the first week of school has drawn awareness to the sad fact that young children try to and sometimes manage to take their own lives. Glover said it’s still very rare for children younger than 10 to attempt suicide, but it seems to be increasing.

In young children, restricting access to lethal means, like firearms, sharp objects, and prescription medication, greatly reduces the chances of attempted or actual suicide, Glover said. Lock boxes for pills, scissors, and knives can be bought at drugstores.

It’s also important for parents and schools to know that children who bully – and not just those who are bullied – have an increased risk of harming themselves.

“We’re quick to ask our kids, ‘Are you being bullied?’ But it’s just as important to ask our kids, ‘Are you bullying anyone?’” Glover said. The common denominators are hopelessness, a sense of social isolation, difficulty making or keeping friends, and troubles at school or at home.

Glover said it’s important for parents to keep lines of communication open and help kids deal with big emotions. Adults should ask kids not just how their day was, but also what hard things happened at school and how the child is feeling about them and coping. And parents should not be afraid of asking children if they’re thinking about harming themselves.

Here’s how to ask, according to Glover: Have you ever wished you could go to sleep and not wake up? If the answer is yes, follow up with, Have you ever thought about hurting yourself? If the answer is yes again, ask your child if they’ve thought about how and when they would do this, Glover said.

If a child has a specific plan, it’s best to go to the emergency department, Glover said. If the child doesn’t have a plan, arrange for a mental health evaluation as soon as possible and keep checking in with your child in the meantime to make sure they haven’t started to form a plan.

“If you ask your kids those questions, you’re going to be much more likely to be able to keep them safe,” Glover said.


RESOURCES

Colorado Crisis Line: 1-844-493-8255, coloradocrisisservices.org. You can chat online or text TALK to 38255.

Crisis Text Line: crisistextline.org. Text 741741 from anywhere in the nation to reach a counselor.

Mental Health First Aid Colorado: mhfaco.org. Classes teach participants the signs and symptoms of mental health challenges or crisis, what to do in an emergency, and where to turn for help.

Mental Health Colorado: https://www.mentalhealthcolorado.org/ This statewide advocacy organization offers a free mental health toolkit for schools.

Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado: www.suicidepreventioncolorado.org. The coalition works to reduce suicide through education and advocacy.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org. The foundation pays for research, raises awareness, and provides support to those affected by suicide.

Colorado Department of Education: Bullying Prevention: cde.state.co.us/mtss/bullying. Find current research, best practices, and grant programs.