An F for Effort

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Six years ago I taught in the Prince George's County public school system. I lasted about six weeks, then quit rather than be a well-paid babysitter. The problem: a lack of serious students and school officials who feared parents.

When I entered the Prince George's system, I was a 25-year veteran of the New York City schools. I also had taught for five years in the District and had spent three years as a teacher and an administrator in Virginia's Isle of Wight County Public School District. I was a product of the New York City public schools, Howard University, Harvard University and Nova Southeastern University. I knew why excellent students succeeded: They studied.

Unfortunately, too many children in my Prince George's classes did not study. They were allowed to complain their way out of working hard, and the system lacked the courage to tell parents that their children were lazy and that is why they weren't succeeding. We expect student athletes to practice every day as a means to excellence, but that same expectation of practice and commitment to academics was lacking in Prince George's.

Prince George's is a wealthy county with beautiful homes. Its hard-working citizens are mainly high achievers, and its politicians are astute and powerful. Yet the county has the second-worst school test scores in Maryland. Why is no one asking why the children are not working as hard as their parents did to succeed?

As a child growing up in Harlem, from 1937 to 1955, the year I completed high school, I never knew a child who could not read, write and do arithmetic. I knew children who got into trouble regularly, but they could read, write and do arithmetic. It was a matter of pride.

At that time our athletic heroes included Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, Bill Russell, Frank Thomas and Wilma Rudolph. But they were high achievers in academics, too.

In those days I knew more than 50 basketball players who earned college degrees, even though blacks generally were discouraged from getting even high school diplomas. Stanley Hill went on to head the largest municipal union in the state; Al Vann became one of the most respected politicians in New York. Tom Sanders, who played for the Boston Celtics, later coached Harvard University's basketball team. Many other athletes I knew became teachers, school administrators, lawyers, physicians and business leaders.

Today black children have infinite opportunities to succeed. Maryland has a black lieutenant governor, and he and two other black politicians are running for statewide positions. That was just a dream for blacks in 1957, when I entered Howard University.

Unfortunately, our children have lost the ability to dream and the aptitude for struggle. And until they gain this spirit for success, they will fail.

Booker T. Washington was born a slave, but he built a university that continues to operate today. Washington believed that blacks could only do well via hard work. Times have not changed this fact of life. In America, those who work the hardest are the most successful.

Success for the Prince George's County public school system will not come from outside the system. It can only come from the most important people in the system -- the students, our children.

-- Louis A. DeFreitas

© 2006 The Washington Post Company