Al Sharpton’s NAN Tackles Education, the ‘Civil Rights Issue of Our Day’ - Higher Education
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Al Sharpton’s NAN Tackles Education, the ‘Civil Rights Issue of Our Day’

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by Jamal Watson

Al Sharpton speaks at the 16th annual National Action Network (NAN) national convention, which addressed issues like education, health and wellness and gun control reform.

Al Sharpton speaks at the 16th annual National Action Network (NAN) national convention, which addressed issues like education, health and wellness and gun control reform.

NEW YORK— Helping students of color acquire the necessary skills in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) was a focal point of the education panel at the National Action Network’s annual convention in New York City.

Dr. Marcus Bright, executive director of Education for a Better America (EBA), moderated the panel that included educators from across the country, including television personality Dr. Steve Perry and Dr. Lisa Staino-Coico, president of The City College of New York.

Staino-Coico said that more work has to be done to get minority students interested in STEM fields at an early age so that they can major in the disciplines in college and go on to the competitive job market.

“Students are already tracked out of STEM before they even get to us because they haven’t had the math expertise; they haven’t been given the self-confidence,” said Staino-Coico, who has been president of the Harlem-based college since 2010. “They also don’t come with built-in networks.”

NAN, the civil rights organization founded in 1991 by the Rev. Al Sharpton, has made access to education one of its major issues, with Sharpton dubbing it the “civil rights issue of our day.”

In a speech on Wednesday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discussed President Obama’s efforts to reduce racial disparities in the classroom and the administration’s new initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper,” which aspires to create pathways to success for men and boys of color.

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The initiative, announced several months ago, will focus on using results and evidence to evaluate what works—and stop what doesn’t—to improve opportunities for at-risk youths, all within existing federal resources, said Duncan, who also highlighted the department’s recently released Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), which addresses the disparities in educational opportunities among African-Americans and other students of color.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), faulted administrators for spending too much time focused on standardized testing and not enough time on teaching content material.

“Why is it that testing is elevated over teaching?” asked Weingarten, a former high school teacher who said that more should be done to help poor students. “Why is it that America’s epidemic of childhood poverty is ignored?”

A forceful critic of unions, Perry, who is principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., said that protecting ineffective teachers and “schools that are not working for our community” have left many minority students without the necessary skills to advance in college.

In addition, minority students are “being starved by lack of access to AP courses,” said Dr. Ivory A. Toldson, deputy director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and an associate professor of counseling psychology at Howard University. According to Toldson, since many minority students are steered away from rigorous courses in math and sciences before they get to college, they often lack the skills and the desire to enroll in such programs once they arrive on campus.

“What we really need is to check the attitude of the teachers who discourage them before they even get started,” said Toldson.

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President Obama is scheduled to address the convention delegates Friday.

Jamal Watson can be reached at jwatson1@diverseeducation.com. You can follow him @jamalericwatson

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