Chicago-Style Grit Needed to Get Through School

A recent Education Week article suggested that the sudden enthusiasm among some education reformers for “grit and perseverance” is a racist idea. If that’s really true, then I plead guilty. Do low-income and minority students have to work hard? Yes, because as long as racial injustice still exists, barriers to their educational attainment will still be erected. Education is the great equalizer, but we are far from reaching parity. We cannot lower our expectations for children from difficult circumstances. If we do, it’s a signal we believe they’re not capable of fulfilling them. Sending low-income kids to college is my life’s work. The only thing more important than giving them access is making sure they capitalize on the opportunity and complete their education. It’s not enough to just send kids to college. We have to help them all the way until they’re crossing the stage to receive their diploma. I was inspired recently during two visits to Chicago, where I met with city leaders and high school students. Chicago is leading the push to turn America from a college-going culture into a college-graduating one—and it’s all about high expectations and perseverance. Tell me the young man I met who admitted he was on “auto-pilot” throughout high school, whose grandmother died leaving him essentially parentless while still in high school, and who is now working the ramp at O’Hare Airport, hasn’t drawn on resilience to survive. Tell me that determination, coupled with support from school, did not carry the young woman I met who was a victim of both sexual abuse and bullying to transfer college three times until she found the best fit and is currently earning her master’s degree. Tell me that—after spending the past 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights, having seen a young black man murdered for daring to use a whites-only bathroom or a respected activist tried for treason because he spoke out against the Vietnam War—fortitude didn’t move my compatriots and me forward during many a bleak time. Our journey continues. Persevere we shall. But we must have a direction. Job number one is to get students through high school. Just a decade ago, only 58 percent of Chicago Public School students completed high school. Today, that number is 73 percent and climbing, thanks to an early warning system that tracks freshmen grades and attendance and intervenes before they slip through the cracks. We also need to maintain a strong federal role in education so that states and districts are held to high standards and the ambitions of these young people of color are fulfilled. Low standards leave too many children unprepared to continue their education. College access is also critical. Thanks to the generosity of people all across America, the United Negro College Fund provides scholarships to more than 10,000 students each year. In fact, while I was in Chicago, the mayor presented a $150,000 check to my organization from City of Chicago employees to support our Better Futures campaign. President Obama also has proposed granting free community college to students who maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average. The president’s proposal is modeled on a similar idea developed in Chicago, where starting next fall every student with a B average who tests college-ready in math and English gets free tuition to community college. Today, college enrollment is soaring. The Pew Research Center states that from 1996 to 2012, the number of Hispanics ages 18 to 24 enrolling in college more than tripled. Among blacks of the same age group, the number increased by 72 percent. While I was in Chicago, I also met with a group of students at Westinghouse College Prep and asked how many planned to go to college. Every single hand shot up. Encouraging as these trends are, we’re mistaking access for success. It’s insufficient to prepare students to be eligible for college; we have to make sure they’re ready. In that respect, we are falling short. Whether from loneliness, cultural isolation, financial barriers or academic hurdles, disadvantaged children face challenges when they go off to college. The same Pew report shows that blacks and Hispanics account for 34 percent of high school graduates, and 33 percent of those enrolled in college, but only 18 percent of four-year college graduates. We must equip our children of color with the practical knowledge and the self-belief to persevere against all odds. I saw those qualities in the face of the Westinghouse student who peppered her classmates with a flurry of questions about their planned majors. I saw it in the face of the young airport worker who had to grow up sooner than he expected. So no, grit isn’t a racist construct. It’s part of life.
Michael L. Lomax is president and CEO of UNCF. This post originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on February 11, 2014.
Michael Lomax
Since 2004, Michael L. Lomax has been president and CEO of UNCF, the nation’s largest private provider of scholarships and other educational support to African American students. He is a leading advocate of college readiness—students’ need for an education, from preschool through high school, that prepares them for college success. Under his leadership, UNCF ...

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