At the conclusion of the 2009 National Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Week Conference, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a gathering of Black college leaders Wednesday that he predicts HBCUs will receive “unprecedented” levels of financial support under the Obama administration.
While providing few spending specifics, Duncan pointed to the expansion of the Pell Grant program, which will boost grant awards for HBCU students as well as increase the number of grant recipients attending HBCUs.
“Going forward, we project that HBCU students and their institutions will receive an additional $80 million in Pell Grants and 13,000 more students will become Pell Grant recipients, bringing the number of Pell Grant recipients at HBCUs to almost 200,000 students,” he said.
Speaking broadly about stimulus funds and the 2010 fiscal year budget proposals, Duncan said HBCUs are getting serious attention from federal officials as the U.S. Education Department leads efforts to reinvigorate American higher education with increased investment.
“Our budget and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, enacted earlier this year, provide the largest commitment to higher education funding since the GI Bill sent World War II veterans to college and built the American middle class. HBCUs, in particular, need more money to be successful,” Duncan said. “I fully anticipate that HBCUs will, in fact, receive unprecedented federal support next year.”
Duncan honored the history and traditions of HBCUs by saying they “have many valuable lessons to teach higher education about how it can move forward” to better educate students.
“Moving forward, I think higher education has much to learn about how HBCUs have met economic and academic challenges in the past,” he said. “After seven years of being the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I know any large system is hard to reform. But I reject the fashionable pessimism that the status quo cannot change. And one reason I’ve remained so optimistic about the capacity for transformational change is the record of HBCUs. Outside the HBCU community, not many people know that HBCUs were created largely because there was a desperate need to train teachers and build schools for Black students after the Civil War.”
In addition to founding higher education institutions, Black college leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, helped spearhead the development of philanthropically funded elementary and secondary schools across the South, according to Duncan. With backing from the Julius Rosenwald fund, Black educators established roughly 3,500 schools by 1927, he noted.
“Those schools employed 10,000 teachers that taught half a million children. Clearly the challenge we face today in turning around the nation’s worst performing schools pale in comparison to the challenges that (W.E.B.) DuBois and (Booker T.) Washington faced,” Duncan said.
Duncan’s 41-minute address, which came during the closing dinner and awards ceremony, drew an enthusiastic response from several hundred attendees, including dozens of HBCU presidents.
Said Dr. Ronald Carter, president of Johnson C. Smith University, of Duncan’s remarks: “I think he sounded a promising note for higher education in general and specifically for historically Black colleges. But always we have to assess what is going to actually happen when the rubber hits the road. It was a promising note.”
More than 1,600 people attended the 2009 National HBCU Week conference, according to an Education Department spokesman. Under the direction of the Education Department, the conference organizer, the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, is charged with coordinating federal assistance for and agency partnerships with the nation’s 105 historically Black institutions.
In addition to praising the HBCU tradition, Duncan challenged HBCU leaders to get their institutions more deeply involved in K-12 reform. “I’d like to see HBCUs take a greater role in improving the pipeline to college by forming creative partnerships with school districts. Just down the road from here at Howard University, they became the first university in the District to establish its own school – a charter school. Howard University’s middle school of math and science is doing an extraordinary job of boosting student achievement,” he noted.
During the four-day conference. HBCU leaders heard from federal, state and local officials about partnerships and initiatives, such as the newly announced “Race to the Top” campaign by the U.S. Education Department. Marisa Bold, an Education Department special assistant for the Race to the Top program, said the initiative, which aims to substantially increase American attainment of college degrees and postsecondary training, is being launched as a competitive incentive grant program where states can implement measures to improve K-12 student outcomes. Program goals are to improve student achievement, close the achievement gap and raise high school graduation rates, she told attendees at a “Race to the Top” workshop on Wednesday.
Dr. William R. Hite Jr., the superintendent of Prince George’s County Public Schools, said with Race to the Top underway he sees the potential for deepening his system’s ties to historically Black schools so that they educate more Prince George’s graduates. He noted that last year 300 teachers working for Prince George’s public schools earned degrees from HBCUs.
“We have to ensure that kids graduate college and are career ready,” Hite said. “Your students are becoming our teachers.”
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