Former Post columnist Raspberry uses Baby Steps to transform lives

Courtland Milloy
Columnist June 26, 2012

When Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Raspberry started a school here in 2003, he wasn’t just “giving something back” to his home town. He was trying to work a miracle.

“It is my attempt to renew faith in the magic of education,” Raspberry wrote in his farewell column for The Washington Post in December 2005. “I believe that pulling a community together around the future of its children can do wonders to transform both.”

If ever an aspiration had the ring of an impossible dream, this was it. But in less than 10 years, Raspberry has come closer to realizing this dream than anyone could have imagined.

The school, Baby Steps, teaches mostly low-income parents of preschoolers how to prepare their children for success in school — and life. In 2010, when Okolona’s public school system collapsed in failure and was taken over by the state, residents soon realized that what worked for toddlers could also help older students.

But to make real progress, the community would have to do just as Raspberry hoped — pull together.

“Our test scores and graduation rates were low, but it was only after we lost local control of the schools that parents came together and asked, ‘What do we need to do?’ ” Mayor Louise Cole recalled. “Baby Steps had already developed a reputation for teaching parents how to turn their homes into ‘learning environments,’ so the school became a gathering place, and Bill’s approach became a big part of our effort to turn the schools around.”

In recognition of Raspberry’s accomplishments, The Post will host a roast and fundraiser for Baby Steps on Tuesday. Anyone interested in contributing to the school can get more information from the Web site www.
takebabysteps.com
.

The school could certainly use the help, as Raspberry made clear in that final column.

“The problem is that the effort is about to outgrow my ability to fund it out of pocket,” he wrote. “And that brings me to my most immediate reason for stepping down now: I need to raise money to sustain and expand Baby Steps.”

For a guy who didn’t even like asking for raises because, as he once told me, a refusal would be an insult, devoting himself full time to what might be seen as begging meant that Raspberry was totally committed to this school.

Baby Steps, which has helped dozens of parents and children, operates out of an A-frame house and has a staff of teachers, curriculum specialists and educators who make home visits. The classroom is large and features an impressive collection of books and movies, the walls lined with drawings of notable African American scholars.

Outdoors, students have planted a “family garden,” their first names attached to sticks marking each plot of budding plants.

During his 42 years as a journalist, Raspberry, 76, often encouraged students to dream big and urged parents and teachers to have high expectations. If starting a school was his idea of “practicing what you preach,” he has certainly outdone himself.

“He talked a lot about Mississippi having the lowest literacy rate, and he wanted to do something about it, starting with his community,” said Sondra Raspberry, who has been married to Bill for 45 years. “His dream was to create a model for improving education in other communities around the country.”

His home town, a rural outpost about 20 miles south of Tupelo, has a population of about 3,000 — not much larger than, say, the Barry Farm neighborhood in Southeast Washington. There are fewer than 700 students enrolled in the Okolona school system.

Last month, the state Board of Education voted to restore local control of the schools. The progress had been astounding. The school system now meets 35 of 37 accreditation standards, having failed to meet 34 just two years ago.

And all 42 high school seniors graduated this year. In 2010, only a third had met the academic requirements.

Mike Vinson, the state-appointed conservator for the Okolona schools, has high praise for the role Baby Steps played in the transformation.

“It was a very integral part of reaching out to young parents who needed direction in helping prepare their kids,” he said.

As for Raspberry:

“He’s one of the most fantastic people I have ever met in my life,” Vinson said. “He is genuinely interested in children, and he’s been a real blessing to the community.”

A town pulling together to save its children; faith in the magic of education being restored. Maybe Raspberry is a miracle worker after all.

To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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