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James K. Stovall

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The Need For Role Models In Urban Education

Posted: 10/29/10 02:07 AM ET

For all the students of color at Ivy League schools and other top universities including Historically Black Colleges thinking about their post-graduation careers, I have a plea: please, get involved in education.

Our education system, particularly in urban areas, is failing to provide thousands of African American and Hispanic students with a great education, and we need fresh minds in the system to help turn it around. We particularly need faces of color to inspire and become role models for young blacks and Hispanics.

Barack Obama broke through the highest ceiling in winning the presidency and serves as an inspiration for African-Americans and other minorities across America. It's time for smart and enthusiastic blacks and Hispanics to be an inspiration and get actively involved in education. It's time for them to become leading role models and lend a hand in helping our children succeed.

Reflecting on my own days at Thurgood Marshall's alma mater, Howard University Law School, I remember the lure of working at a big firm -- which I heeded upon graduation time. No dishonor in that, nor the decision made by thousands like me who will choose a similar path this year.

Once I was in private practice, however, I didn't feel fulfilled. At that time I took on some pro bono work advising Parents for School Choice, a New York based nonprofit advocacy organization that successfully lobbied for passage of New York State's Charter Act. It was then that I found my true calling, working in the charter school movement.

Part of the work of eliminating the 'Achievement Gap' between inner-city children of color and their white peers in the suburbs, is getting people into positions of leadership and visibility who have similar life experiences to the children they are trying to serve.

Don't get me wrong-I'm heartened by the many people of all races and ethnicities that are focusing their energies on education reform, and welcome them and their talents to the field. This is a special call to arms to those Black and Hispanic professionals who are blessed with talent and a great education, but aren't being fulfilled because they have yet to replenish the reservoir of opportunity from which they have borrowed.

Fortunately, there are many organizations that can help take you from your job in the law, medicine or business and get you engaged in the important work being done in urban schools across America. Here are a few:

Teach for America (TFA) -- This organization, founded 20 years ago, has provided an important path for young people seeking a route into the teaching profession. However, out of more than 4,500 corps members participating in Teach for America in 2010, only 11 percent were African-American while Hispanics and Latinos represented a meager seven percent. One of TFA's enduring legacies has been the many talented people who have ended up not only in the classroom but in policy positions. Now comes an education entrepreneur Miriam Raccah, who founded the incredibly successful Girls Prep on the Lower East Side, with an organization called the Urban Teaching Fellows, which will focus on bringing talented people of color into the classroom as teachers.

Building Excellent Schools (BES) -- So, you think you may want to start your own charter school. Over the past three years 66 new charter schools have opened in New York City. Many of these start-ups are independent schools that reflect the efforts and planning of a singled determined individual with a vision. The BES fellowship provides an annual stipend of $80,000 to people who will found a results-focused urban charter school. Graduates of that program include Brooklyn native Natasha Campbell, an African-American who last year opened Summit Academy Charter School in Red Hook. Other charter school founders of color include Shirley Remeneski, Andrea Zayas and Eduardo LaGuerre, as well as Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II and Reverends Orlando Findlayter, A.R. Benard, and Barrington Goldson.

BoardSource -- There are many ways that people can help, outside of what they do in their day job. Serving on the board of an education organization, such as a charter school, is an important contribution. To get an idea of what it means to serve on a nonprofit board, check out the web site maintained by BoardSource. Consider someone I know -- Martez Moore. Martez is sharp with a high-powered job at Viacom overseeing digital media for BET. Yet, he makes time to chair the board of the oldest charter school in NY state, the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem. There are many others, including attorneys Betty Leon and Gerald Karikari, both in Queens.

The forces arrayed against reform have created a caricature that suggests that people of color are not a part of this effort. The visibility of figures like Geoffrey Canada, the leader of the Harlem Children's Zone, in the documentary film Waiting for 'Superman' are helping to blunt this criticism, but we need more help. Reforming education is the civil rights struggle of our time and there is not a person of color in this country who's energy can't be tapped to turn the tide.