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CLOSING THE OPPORTUNITY GAP

 

Many parents recently enjoyed their children’s achievement of educational milestones.  With the intent of highlighting success factors related to high academic attainment, the following is my summary of an interview with Akili Colley Echols, a 2017 graduate of Farmington High School.  In addition to graduating Phi Beta Kappa, she received the National Merit Scholarship Program Letter of Commendation; the Susan H. Zurvalec Leadership in Diversity Scholarship; Recognition in Language Arts Award; Groves-Walker American Legion Post 346 Award; and a Medal for Four Years of a 4.0 Grade Point Average. 

For each of the past four years, Akili competed successfully in various sprints as well as related relays during Michigan’s state high school track and field championships.  She also served as Co-President of the Interact Impact Community Service organization and participated in other service projects.  This fall, she will be a student-athlete at the University of Michigan.  The following is my summary of an interview that took place during the weekend that I attended her (my granddaughter’s) graduation.

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JLD:  Akili, congratulations on your high school record of distinction!  In 4th grade, you were inspired by Miley Cyrus’ The Climb [“I can almost see it; That dream I am dreaming; But there's a voice inside my head saying you'll never reach it …Always gonna be an uphill battle; Sometimes I'm gonna have to lose…The struggles I'm facing; The chances I'm taking sometimes might knock me down; But no, I'm not breaking …Just gotta keep going and I got to be strong...”]. 

You kept on climbing notwithstanding the fact that, from the cradle through college and thereafter, Black females face never ending race and gender bias.  Why, then, are you headed to the University of Michigan instead of having gone through what is called the “school-to-prison pipeline?”

ACE:  I live in a community that is much better off than the ones many Black girls live in and get overtaken by problems.  I attended a much better school system; and I have two well-educated parents as well as an older sister who is committed to being successful.  However, it is not just about what others contributed to me.  It also has to do with personal drive and commitment. I internalized my family’s values related to education.

I always tried to earn the best grades.  I was fully committed to studying, often studying at least 4 hours per night.   My goal was to always achieve at the highest level I could, yet there were other kids with the same home advantages as I had but they did not have the personal commitment to succeed. 

JLD:  It has been said, “to whom much is given, much is to be expected.”  You not only excelled in academics and athletics, but you also continually engaged in community service.  How did you acquire your commitment to community service? 

ACE:  It is very hard for me to imagine not helping people who do not have my advantages.  I know what people can do if they receive the help they need.  A tutoring project I was involved in started out helping low income kids do well in middle school.  Then it evolved into one to help students struggling academically.  Once we tutored the kids, they excelled academically.  Part of what also motivated me was that I surrounded myself with friends who were committed to helping others.

JLD:  Akili, it is worth underscoring the fact that it was not just low-income students who were having academic difficulties.  Nevertheless, there continues to be significant racial disparities in academic achievement.  If you could do something to eliminate the disparities, what would you do? 

ACE:  First, there needs to be a cultural change.  I see so many Blacks who could achieve at much higher levels, but they do not have high enough standards for themselves.  I would also tell students to be careful in terms of the friends they surround themselves with. 

At the same time, there are resource problems.  Many of the schools just don’t have the resources for kids to excel.  Some less fortunate kids have to care for siblings, work to supplement family income, and face all kinds of other problems while attending school. 

JLD:  If you were invited back next year to give a motivational address to high school students, what would be the key points in your address? 

ACE:  A lot of it goes back to simply doing your work, even if others are not.  While it might seem that not every academic assignment matters, they do.  Do every assignment to the best of your ability.  Know that your performance can be easily changed.

JLD:  As you know, our nation is experiencing unprecedented turmoil since the election of POTUS 45.  At the high school level, how have race relations been impacted? 

ACE:  You see a lot more racist things being done and a lot more sweeping of them under the rug. For example, there was an incident in which some White guys had a private chat about a picture of shorts with a watermelon print and one said he could now get all of the Black girls.  Other guys participated, thought it was funny.  A screen shot was taken and circulated.  Suspensions occurred for several of those who participated in the chat.  Another guy wore a confederate flag sweatshirt; students complained to the administration and he wore it again.   A lot of people at school want to pretend things are okay, but they are not and, the thing is, the racism is not new.  People just feel freer to do racist things.

JLD:  I want to return to community service.  You have committed to participating in a service learning community at the University of Michigan this fall.  Why is this so important for you given that you will have to attend to your college course work as well as the demands of being a Big Ten student-athlete?

ACE:  It’s all about giving back and, everyone must understand, including the kids themselves, that there is no reason for Blacks not to succeed if they receive the opportunity to do so.  Just get them the help they need, including help in changing the standards they establish for themselves.

JLD:  I agree with you.  Instead of a mean-spirited “zero tolerance policy” in grade school, we should “zero in” on who each child is capable of becoming and provide them with the necessary support for being all they can become.  

In order to end the achievement gap, we must change the opportunity gap by providing our children with [1] highly competent and committed teachers as well as school administrators who hold high expectations for their students; [2] primary caregivers who are unwavering in their support for their children as well as school officials; and [3] schools with high quality learning resources.  We must inspire our students to become the Serena Williams of Physics, the LeBron James of Mathematics, the Simone Biles of Engineering, and the Usain Bolts of Literature.  It is also important that people such as yourself keep lifting as you climb.

 

Jack L. Daniel

Co-Founder, Freed Panther Society

Contributor, Pittsburgh Urban Media

June 12, 2017

 

 

 

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