Leah Latimer will be reading from her new book, "Higher Ground: Preparing African-American Children for College," at 7 p.m. today at the Southeast branch of the D.C. public library, Seventh and D streets SE. She also will sign copies of the book. A column in yesterday's Prince George's Extra listed an incorrect date for the event. (Published 09/30/99)

Author Leah Latimer calls it "education savvy."

She was a young reporter covering schools in Virginia years ago when she first noticed the sophisticated way some parents worked the system to get the best academic opportunities for their children.

As a Prince George's County mother of two boys, ages 14 and 11, she sees the same pattern here: Informed and involved parents give their children the best chance of success.

That ideal seems like basic common sense. But let's be frank. When it comes to the specifics--doing what it takes to secure the upper hand for our children--African American parents, even college-educated, middle-class black folks, often fall short.

It's not that African American parents care less about our children than do other parents. More times than not, we are just uninformed about how much is available to our children, and thus, have no clue how to take advantage of it.

That's part of what motivated Latimer, 45, who lives in Lake Arbor, to write her new book, "Higher Ground: Preparing African-American Children For College," published in April by Avon Books. The book draws on her knowledge as a mother and journalist who covered education, children and family issues for more than 15 years at The Washington Post, Emerge magazine and other publications.

"I know everybody wants the best for their children," she said. "We just have to think about how we can put that into action."

Part of the first generation in her family to graduate from college, Latimer said she has been amazed by the savvy of parents who know how to work a school system--public or private--to get the most for their children. Some parents, for example, send their children to summer school not to repeat a failed class, but to expand the student's knowledge in a subject or improve a grade.

Others in Prince George's and elsewhere encourage their children to return to high school for an extra year after receiving a diploma to take advanced courses, boost a grade-point average or improve standardized test scores, all to become a more attractive candidate to prospective colleges. More than 100 private schools in the Washington area offer a "postgraduate" year, Latimer says.

The book, available at most major bookstores, is a nuts-and-bolts guide for parents. It provides a wealth of information on how to evaluate elementary and secondary schools, how to prepare children for standardized tests and even how to pay for college--tips that parents of all races would find beneficial.

But Latimer said she tailored her book to African American parents because statistics show that, as a group, our children are in trouble. Latimer, who was a consultant to the task force on high minority achievement for the College Board, said she was shocked to learn that black children from middle-class and affluent homes are performing as poorly on standardized tests as their poverty-stricken peers.

She examines the attitudes that may be hindering progress. In one chapter, she takes on the notion among some African Americans that making good grades, speaking properly and acting appropriately are "acting white."

The book leaves parents with a feeling that they can control the academic outcome for their children more than they realize. Sure, a parent may not be able to reduce the number of children in a crowded classroom, but that mother can enroll her child in an academic enrichment program after school or on weekends. Often, those programs are free.

Even in a poorly performing school, a shrewd parent is bound to find a pocket of excellence. There are good teachers in every school, and the best-informed parents always know who they are and how to get their children in those classes.

Another important message throughout the book is that parents have to be willing to sacrifice their time and, when possible, money to help their children succeed. They have to be a presence in their children's schools. That means staying involved beyond kindergarten and elementary school, what Latimer calls "the cute years."

When I read that part of Latimer's book, Van and Audrey Caldwell came to mind. Their only child, Nicholas, 18, graduated from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt last year and is a freshman majoring in computer engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The couple, both African American--a lawyer and a teacher--nurtured their son's curiosity by taking him to museums and the library, reading to him and restricting the television mostly to educational programs.

Van Caldwell even put his career as a trial lawyer in the Navy on hold when his son was born so that he would have more time to spend with the child. Caldwell accepted a lower-paying job as an administrative hearings officer, which allowed him to make it home many days as early as noon. He was a "room dad" at Kettering Elementary and president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Kettering Middle.

For a while when Nicholas was in high school, Caldwell even agreed to Nicholas's request that they pretend not to know each other if they met in the halls, but that didn't stop the proud dad from showing up regularly at the school.

Latimer features several parents who give similar advice about how they helped their children excel: Read for pleasure. Stock the home with children's books and magazines. Get a library card. Use it often. And--parents please get this--turn the television off, or at least, limit the amount your child is able to watch.

Latimer's book comes at a good time. The days when African American parents could rely on race-based scholarships to send their smart children to college are gone. Our children must become more competitive and at a time when they are asked to know more than ever.

But if the children are to succeed, African American parents must lead the way.

Latimer will be reading from her book at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6, at the Kettering Largo Library. She also will be reading and signing books at 7 p.m. on Monday at the Southeast library branch, 7th and D streets SE, in the District.

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