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U.S. Education Chief Says NC School District is Worth Emulating

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By Michaela L. Duckett, Special to the NNPA by The Charlotte Post –

The nation’s education system is in crisis. A country that once outranked the world’s other industrialized nations, now trails significantly behind as school drop out rates continue to rise and proficiency scores in the core subjects of math, reading, and science are plummeting.

The problem is far worse for African American students, who continue to lag behind their White and Asian counterparts in achievement. As for black males, half are expected to drop out before completing high school.

Although statistics paint a dismal picture, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is optimistic about the future, and believes Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is “on the cutting edge of innovation," setting an example for the nation to follow.

“I am a big fan of (CMS) Superintendent Peter Gorman and his leadership team here. I think the school district here is making real and sustained and meaningful progress. It’s great to see so many high performing schools,” said Duncan. “As a country, as we think about turning around chronically underperforming schools and schools that for too long haven’t worked for kids and haven’t worked for the community. This school district is trying to do it at a scale and in a systematic way that, I think, is going to shape the national conversation.”

Duncan made those remarks during a recent trip to Charlotte, when he visited Sterling Elementary School with N.C. Governor Beverly Perdue and State Board of Education Chair Bill Harrison to see innovation in action.

Sterling Elementary School was chosen because of its participation in the district’s Strategic Staffing Initiative, which provides a mix of financial and hiring incentives to place strong principals in underperforming schools. The principals make a three year commitment and are allowed to choose an assistant principal, academic facilitator, and as many as five teachers to join them on their new assignments.

First year program results at Sterling showed end of grade reading test scores increased from 34.6 percent to 58.9 percent. Math scores increased from 52.4 percent to 83.7 percent, during the same time.

In fact, academic performance, as measured by proficiency on state tests, has risen at nearly every school participating in the Strategic Staffing initiative. More schools are being added each year.

“If we are serious about closing the achievement gap in our country, we have to close the opportunity gap,” said Duncan. That work, he said, begins with “figuring out how to get your hardest working, most committed teachers and principals in communities that need the most help.”

The problem, he said is that “there are far too many places where [people] in their heart don’t honestly believe that poor children or children of color can be very, very successful. And we need folks who are willing to challenge the status quo.”

Duncan believes initiatives such as CMS’ Strategic Staffing can be powerful in making a difference.

“We have to keep getting better year after year after year, and this district right now is doing that,” he said. “What I see happening here in Charlotte is pretty remarkable.”

Perdue said turning schools around is the responsibility of the entire community, not just that teachers and educators.

“America has one shot at changing the future,” she said. “It’s very incumbent upon all of us, as parents, as faith leaders, and as citizens to step up in a very powerful way for schools. We all have to be involved.”

Perdue said improving the quality of our schools will be to the benefit of all citizens because it is key in attracting the businesses that keep the region vital and make the nation as a whole more globally competitive.

“If we don’t make this happen now, it may never happen,” she said. “We are committed for the long haul. It’s not about more resources, but more courage.”

Duncan said it all begins with a child’s first and most important teachers – parents.

“The most important thing we can do is to be a good, full and equal partner with our children’s [school] teachers,” he said. “I think parents have to turn those TV’s off at night. They have to read to their children. They can’t just show up once a year at a parent-teacher conference to exchange home phone numbers with that teacher. They have to work through good times and bad.”

In the fiscal year 2011 budget, Duncan is asking that the amount allocated for parent communication be doubled to $340 million. “We think that it is just that important to invest in those places that are engaging parents in very creative ways,” he said.

After two consecutive years of deep budget cuts, CMS is expecting a larger shortfall next year when they will face a “funding cliff” as stimulus stabilization funding comes to an end. School board member Trent Merchant asked Duncan if he could provide any commitment, such as setting aside endowment type funds that are protected from the recession to help the district as they work on compensation reform.

Duncan replied: “The government is in this for the long haul, and our resources are helpful, but at the end of the day, I think that our resources are much less important than your courage, your commitment, and your capacity to deliver.”

Duncan said that although teacher compensation is a part of the equation, it is not the sole solution.

“If you pay teachers an extra $40,000 or $50,000 to go into a dysfunctional situation, they’re not going to do it. Great principals, great schools are hugely important in attracting and retaining great talent in tough communities.”

Duncan said that like CMS, the vast majority of school districts across the nation are being forced to do more with less. “These are just tough times… There are no easy answers. That’s reality, and it’s not going to change anytime soon. We can either cry about it or we can figure out how to use every single dollar wisely and how we can create innovative partnerships and bring in the philanthropic community, the business community, and how we engage parents in different ways,” he said.

Duncan believes the challenge will drive districts to be more productive and efficient. It will also force difficult conversations about programs and strategies that may look good on paper but do little in making a difference in improving the quality of education and changing lives.

“In education, we are very good at starting new programs, but we’re much less good at stopping things that aren’t working,” he said.

Federal Funds Target Ex-Offender Re-entry

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By La Risa Lynch, Special to the NNPA from the Chicago Crusader –

As the name implies, A Safe Haven became a refuge for Chicago resident Daniel Soto.

At age 13, Soto joined a gang, became addicted to drugs and, subsequently, cycled in and of jail. Since age 18, he has served a total of 13 years behind bars. Now 41, Soto has a new lease of life thanks to A Safe Haven, a Chicago-based residential substance abuse treatment facility.

Soto is nearly one year sober. He has reunited with his twin 18-year-old daughters and works as a substance abuse counselor at the same agency that got him sober. Soto admits it was tough. He was mandated to the program in 2008.

“When the pressure comes, my first instinct is do what I know I have to do and that is doing the wrong stuff,” Soto said. “That is all I knew. [But] through Safe Haven, I know there is a better way.” More ex-offenders, like Soto, will get a second chance at redemption thanks to new appropriations for the Second Chance Act. This year, Congress appropriated $100 million for the act, which will fund 178 new grants nationwide.

The act provides federal funding for programs that helps ex-offenders with educational services, job training, substance abuse treatment, and mental health counseling. The goal is to reduce recidivism.

Safe Haven was among several Illinois agencies to receive funding under the act. Illinois received more than $4 million. Last year, Congress allotted $25 million for the Act. It is expected that the Obama administration will allocate $200 million in 2011.

Safe Haven’s $500,000 grant will expand services and provide individualized case management. The funding also replaces state funding the agency lost due to Illinois’ $13 billion budget deficit. The agency serves 4,000 formerly incarcerated and homeless individuals annually.

“This money that Congressman Davis brought to Illinois is the best stimulus package that you can come to us with,” said Neli Vazquez-Rowland, president of Safe Haven.

For each dollar spent on treatment, the state saves $7 to $18, Vazquez-Rowland explained. That $500,000 grant, she added, saves the state $3.5 million.

Second Chance funding provides resources to address juvenile delinquency, violence and addictions behaviors that could lead to incarceration, said Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-IL). He introduced the legislation in 2007. He recalled getting support for the measure was a hard sell in Congress. It was signed into law a year later.

“Lots of people told us it would never happen; that we were whistling Dixie,” he said.

But support came from an unlikely source - Former President George W. Bush. The president lamented his own recovery from alcoholism and how faith-based organizations “helped me with my drinking,” Davis recalled President Bush as saying.

Ultimately, Davis added, Second Chance is about redemption for people who have made mistakes, paid their debt to society, and want to get their life back on track.

“A lot of times when you give a guy a second chance, they make good of it,” said Tio Hardiman, of CeaseFire. “I’ve turned my life around about 20 years ago, and it’s been non-stop.”

Hardiman has been clean and sober for 20 years. He now directs CeaseFire, a violence intervention group that addresses violence from a public health standpoint.

The group employees ex-gang members as violence interrupters to mediate gang conflicts before they escalate. Over the last 10 years, CeaseFire has hired over 300 ex-offenders.

Davis earmarked $750,000 for CeaseFire. That funding is not part of Second Chance. But the funds serve the same purpose. The money allow CeaseFire to fund additional staff for its work in Chicago’s 11th police district. The district has seen 64 shootings from January to June of this year. The group works with about 100 high-risk youth and has mediated 70 conflicts that could have turned deadly.

Hardiman contends that street outreach has contributed to the declining Chicago homicide rates. He noted that since 2004, Chicago has not been in the top 25 cities for the most homicides. “We are on pace this year to get homicides under 400,” he explained. “There were 458 homicides last year. Although you hear a lot about shootings, homicides are actually down.” The Digital Development Corporation and Oversight Committee (DDCOC) received a $250,000 grant. The five-year-old organization trains ex-offenders in computer repair. The money will allow the volunteer organization to hire a career coach and focus more on job placement.

“Because we are a grassroots group we are not used to operating with funds,” DDOC’s Lowry Taylor quipped.

Located on Chicago’s West side, the group has made strides. Over the last four years, the group has trained 217 ex-offenders of which 107 have found jobs. Some West Side communities have recidivism rates upwards 56 percent.

“Our focus is to get people lives turned around and it works,” Taylor said.

Some ex-offenders who have completed the program successful have found employment making upwards of $45,000, he noted.

Sickle Cell is No Barometer for Fullness

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By Sandra Jordan, Special to the NNPA from the St. Louis American –

WASHINGTON (NNPA) - Six years ago, St. Louis native Jacquelyn Whitney retired from KMOV TV Channel 4 after nearly 30 years of working in television production. Rather than flying south where retirees typically flock, Jackie headed west.

It was a day she thought she would never see, because she lives with sickle cell disease.

Sickle cell anemia is a serious inherited blood disorder of persons of color, in which oxygen-carrying red blood cells are stiff and “C” shaped rather than round, causing difficulty moving through blood vessels. Sickle cells clump together, causing severe pain episodes, blocking blood flow to limbs and organs. It can cause infections, organ damage and can be life-threatening.

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 90,000- 100,000 cases of sickle cell. The disease occurs in one out of every 500 African American births.

“Indescribable joint pain” is how Whitney calls the sickle cell crises.

“Usually the pain would start in my arms or my legs and they were so extreme, that my father would take me over to the hospital, and of course, the doctors had no idea what was going on, but the usually treatment was they usually end up giving me a penicillin shot,” Whitney recalls. “Most of the time, while I was at the hospital, after about a few hours, the pains would subside.”

When Whitney was 8 years old, Dr. Helen Nash of St. Louis provided her and her parents with news that would shape the rest of her life.

“She explained to me that it was hereditary – that the only way you can get sickle cell disease is that someone in your family has to have either full-blown disease or they have the trait of it.

And, that I probably would still experience the same types of pain and episodes that I had been experiencing all of the early part of my life,” she said. “After taking a big breath she said, ‘I will tell you that most people who have this disease never live past their teens.’”

Hampton University Opens $225M Cancer Center

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By Jeremy M. Lazarus, Special to the NNPA from the Richmond Free Press –

Hampton University (HU) has ushered in a new era of cancer treatment in Virginia with the recent opening of its $225 million Proton Therapy Institute. After three years of construction, the institute has gone into action to deliver on its promise of providing life-saving therapy. This is the first proton therapy center connected with a historically black university and the only one of eight in this country not connected with a medical school.

Institute doctors have begun treating patients, according to Dr. Cynthia E. Keppel, science and technology director for the HU institute. “We’re very excited,” Dr. Keppel said in a telephone interview from her office as the new center began treating patients with prostate, breast, lung and other cancers. HU President William R. Harvey remarkably took the institute from concept to reality in just five years. He rallied local, state, and federal support for a project that he envisioned as creating a “hub for cancer treatment, research, and technology.”

As the institute’s name states, the treatment uses protons, a positively charged subatomic particle, to blast tumors. The equipment allows a stream of protons to be focused with laserlike precision on a malignant tumor anywhere in the body, Dr. Keppell said. While expensive, the treatment has gained favor for being less invasive and less dangerous to the patient than traditional radiation therapy.

This is the first proton therapy center connected with a historically black university and the only one of eight in this country not connected with a medical school. At 98,000 square feet, it ranks as the largest freestanding center among the 23 proton centers in the world. It is located in a Hampton business park off campus. Dr. Harvey was able to jump-start the project with help from former Gov. Tim Kaine. In 2007, Gov. Kaine cut through financing hurdles by allowing the state’s Small Business Financing Authority to issue $220 million in bonds to enable construction to begin. The institute is still feeling its way, Dr. Keppel said.

“We’re beginning slowly. We started with two patients and plan to build up to 12 in the first months,” Dr. Keppel said.

By next summer, she said the center expects to be treating 150 patients at any one time. About 2,000 patients a year are projected at full capacity, she said. The cost of treatment, usually covered by health insurance, is about $50,000 per patient, she said, meaning the institute should generate between $80 million and $100 million a year in revenue.

African-American Columnist, Political Analyst Dr. Ron Walters Dies at 72

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By Hazel Trice Edney, NNPA Editor-in-Chief –

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – He was a political analyst, a professor, a lecturer, a strategist, a mentor, a commentator, a thought leader, a Black Press columnist, a husband and a friend. And he did it all while remaining true to his life’s passion as an advocate for the progress and advancement of Black people. Dr. Ron Walters died of lung cancer Sept. 10, shocking many in the civil rights community who were unaware of the extent of his illness.

“Dr. Ron Walters was the preeminent activist and scholar of our times,” says the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who visited with Walters in the hospital during his final days and will deliver the eulogy next week. Funeral services were incomplete at NNPA deadline.

“He was my issues director in my ’84 and ’88 campaigns. Ron led a sit-in in 1958 as a student NAACP youth leader two years before the 1960 sit-ins in Greensboro. He wrote six books and thousands of articles…We learned to lean on Ron Walters for our frame of reference,” said Jackson. “Today we’re number one in athletics and number one in presidential politics; but also number one in poverty. We’re number one in infant mortality, short life expectancy and in unemployment. Ron kept us abreast of that data. The good news is that Ron taught so many scholars. There are those who will now bear truth. So, that tradition will be kept alive.”

Walters, who submitted his last NNPA column – “…March for Jobs and Justice Where Ever You Are” - to the NNPA News Service on August 16, continued to conduct interviews and phone conferences from his hospital room, Jackson said. “He never stopped giving of himself.”

Former NNPA Editor-in-Chief George Curry, who edited Walters’ column for seven years and also covered him for decades, described him as “a brilliant, dedicated, consistent and unapologetic warrior for African-Americans. While he is best known for teaching at Howard and the University of Maryland, advising Jesse Jackson and the Congressional Black Caucus, he spent many hours sharing his expertise with small, largely unknown community groups. Black American has lost a scholar whose life exemplified excellence.”

News releases honoring Walters’ legacy were plentiful from top Black leaders and Walters associates around the country. They include Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Barbara Lee; NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous; president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.

But, his greatest tributes came from his wife of 47 years, Patricia Ann Walters, a retired social worker.

“He had a diverse, multi-dimensional character to himself in terms of teaching, mentoring, working in the grassroots communities to assist them in any way he could; doing many, many, many things throughout his distinguished career for no pay whatsoever because he had this deep love and affection for the work that he was doing for African-Americans in particular. And he was their spokesperson,” Mrs. Walters said in an interview with the NNPA News Service Sunday morning. “That was his calling. …The African-American community stopped and listened because they understand that the messenger was with clean hands and was telling the truth and always on message and never, never deviated from his message. He never backtracked. You always knew that if you got an interview from him, if you got him on TV, he was going to be consistent with his message and he did that for over four decades.”

Mrs. Walters said her husband had pressed beyond the amount of time the doctors expected him to live. As the cancer spread into his lungs and he was told the end was near, he remained heartened by new accomplishments. He was especially happy about a renewed lecturing relationship with Howard University, where he once served as chair of the Political Science Department before becoming a professor at the University of Maryland.

“As a son of Howard, he never left the Capstone. It was always home,” said Howard’s President Sidney A. Ribeau in a statement. “We are deeply grateful for his enormous contributions to our university, to the field and to the nation. We will truly miss his measured voice and his strategic mind, but his insightful wisdom will endure through the lives he touched.”

Walters was slated to give his first speech at Howard under the new contract on Sept. 9, but he was too ill and died the next day at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md.

Mrs. Walters said he simply wanted to give everything he could; so he kept quiet about his illness in order not to dissuade people from asking for his services.

“He wanted to be able to continue his work, which he did at the very, very last moment. That’s the way he was,” she said. “He wanted to go about his business and have people to treat him like they always treated him in not knowing that he had been battling cancer for six years.”

Walters helped to lay the groundwork for the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1970.

“Professor Walters was a scholarly giant and was one of America’s most insightful analysts of the political landscape, in general, and of the intersection of race, politics and policy, specifically,” said CBC Chairwoman Lee. “His scholarly work and sound advice have assisted many past and present members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and other African American political and civic leaders around the country.”

Walters was born in Wichita on July 20, 1938. He graduated with honors from Fisk University and earned a Masters in African studies and a doctorate in International Studies from American University. He also taught at Georgetown, Syracuse, and Brandeis.

Mrs. Walters said several public memorials will be held, but plans were incomplete.

“We knew that it was an uphill battle. He was such a tremendous fighter and doctors knew that he’d live long beyond what the expectation was. I think he was able to accomplish that because the vast majority of people did not know how sick Ron was when he did things for people and spoke and went on television and conducted radio and television interviews and newspaper interviews. That’s the way he wanted it. And I think he did it with style, elegance and dignity. That is Ron.”

Jackson marveled at the loving relationship between Walters and his wife.

“He stayed close to his wife, Patty, who he loved so much,” he said, noting how she was his greatest encourager.

Jackson said, “He never stopped fighting for a fair and just and comprehensive urban policy to lift up and change the plight of Black people. And that was classical Ron. And at the end, even at the very end, even as he struggled, at the very end, his sensitivity to our constituency, the love of his wife remains such a thing of beauty.”

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