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Praise them for their smarts, not their athletics

By George E. Curry/NNPA Columnist
On June 15, 2015

(NNPA) – I recently attended my grandson Austin’s graduation from pre-school in Buford, Georgia. Yes, you read correctly – pre-school. It’s never too soon to begin celebrating academic achievement.

To borrow a phrase from Jesse Jackson, we have more yesterdays than tomorrows. So, PaPa was excited to go to Austin’s graduation ceremony, see him don a cap and gown for the first time and receive his “diploma.”

At 5 years old, Austin is extremely smart. He reads more books than anyone else in his age group and thinks learning is fun. He frequently wants to practice his site words, even on weekends, without being asked and loves reading to his Grammy.

I was expecting to hear some reference to his quickly developing intellect at his graduation, but was I ever disappointed. Naw, I was pissed.

When it was Austin’s turn to receive his diploma, he had been instructed to run to the front of the room.

“Austin Ragland – as you can see, he’s our best boy runner,” said the presiding teacher.

“He does more than run,” I said under my breath. And the more I thought about it, the angrier I became.

Let’s be clear: Austin’s pre-school has done a wonderful job providing him with a firm educational foundation. I believe his teachers are good-hearted, caring individuals who have his best interests at heart. Still, I find it troubling that of all the things they could have said about Austin, they chose to focus on his speed.

To be fair, they did the same thing to some of his White classmates, so I don’t view it as conscious racism. But I don’t know Austin’s classmates; I know him. And I know how critical it is to highlight brain over brawn.

Austin is a good athlete, but he’s also an excellent student. His parents and grandparents want him to know that what he does academically is far more important than what he does on the basketball court or soccer field.

In my grandson’s case, he will definitely get that reinforcement from his family. But I fear some of his friends might not receive that support. That’s why it’s so important that educators be aware of the messages they are consciously and unconsciously transmitting – to young Black boys in particular.

As education consultant and prolific author Jawanza Kunjufu observes, “Visit a kindergarten class and observe Black boys in action. They’re eager, they sit in the front, they’re on task. They love learning.”

But by the time they are in the ninth grade, they have absorbed a different message, one where academics are not valued as much as they should be.

“Boys don’t drop out in the 12th grade. They physically drop out in the ninth grade, but they emotionally and academically drop out in the fourth grade,” explains Kunjufu.

A contributing factor, he alleges, is the composition of the teaching force.

“White female teachers constitute 83 percent of the U.S. elementary teaching force. African-American students are 17 percent of public school students nationwide, but represent only 6 percent of the teachers.

“Unfortunately, African-American males constitute only 1 percent of the teaching population. There are schools without one African-American male academic teacher. They are employed as custodians, security guards and P.E. teachers. Often schools will hire an African-American male to be assistant principal, which translates into being in charge of all male behavioral problems.”

Make no mistake about it, Black girls, who are suspended or expelled from school at higher rates than White girls, also deserve special attention and should not be ignored in the rush to create new programs and opportunities for Black boys and men.

After the graduation ceremony, one of the administrators told my wife that Austin will be attending a challenging kindergarten in the fall and volunteered, “He’ll probably be placed in the gifted class.”

To me, sharing that with the audience would have been much better than stating that he was the fastest student in the class. He was also one of the smartest and that should not have been overlooked.

George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA) and Curry can be reached through his Web site,

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