NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
What Jenna should know before Harlem
by Karen Hunter
Friday, July 16th, 2004
Jenna Bush reportedly has applied to teach at a charter school in Harlem – where 85% of the children are black. Before setting foot into a classroom in September, Bush should pick up a copy of “A Handbook for Teachers of African American Children,” by Baruti Kafele. In it, she will learn that she must see beyond the ABCs and 1-2-3s.
“When you look at the statistics, black children are not doing well across the nation,” said Kafele. “It’s not because they aren’t as smart, it’s because teachers haven’t figured out how to teach them. … It is incumbent upon an educator to know what each child needs to succeed.”
Kafele started as a teacher in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1988 and found many challenges in the classroom that were not addressed in college. He made it his business to connect with each student in his class – which was difficult in an overcrowded school. But in making connections, he was able to determine whether it was hunger, a tough family situation, not enough challenging work or a learning disorder that kept a particular student from achieving at a high level.
“I had to get to know my students,” he said. “But the greatest challenge was getting these students to know themselves.”
When Kafele took over Sojourner Truth Middle School in East Orange, N.J., in 1999, he inherited low test scores. He went to the superintendent and proposed an African-centric curriculum. They allowed a pilot program. Exploring Africa became the theme of the school, and Kafele developed courses around the theme.
By the time the sixth-graders who came in with Kafele graduated from the eighth grade, scores rose from 47% performing at grade level in English to 55% – higher than any other middle school with similar demographics in the state of New Jersey. Math scores went from 31% proficient to 47%.”Not enough teachers – black or white – know how to make meaningful connections with African-American students in order to motivate, educate and empower them,” he said. “And the school system hasn’t paid enough attention to making those connections.”
While New York and New Jersey talk about reform, and the federal government – including Bush’s father – talks about leaving no child behind, they won’t get anywhere unless they address the root cause of failure. It’s time to get back to basics and get to know the kids.
Note to Jenna Bush: If you’re serious about Harlem, take Kafele’s advice. You’re going to need it.