Historic group of superintendents focus on education

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – For the first time, there are five African American superintendents in Marion County.

Dr. Nathaniel Jones – Superintendent of Pike Township, Dr. Shawn Smith – Superintendent of Lawrence Township,  Dr. Nikki Woodson – Superintendent of Washington Township, Dr. Lewis Ferebee – Superintendent of IPS and Dr. Dena Cushenberry – Superintendent of Warren Township.

They are putting their numbers together to try and empower parents as to how to best participate in their children’s education.  They will take part in a meeting this weekend at Light of the World Christian Church. Pastor David Hampton says he believes improving the achievement of our children is urgent.

“I just firmly believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would say that education is the number one civil rights issue of our time,” said Hampton.

It’s an issue that this group takes seriously. All of them have dedicated their lives to making sure students succeed, sometimes breaking down barriers in the process.

“One of my former students said to me, ‘you made history,’ and I said ‘history?’” recalls Cushenberry. “She said, ‘my mom said you’re the first black principal to open a school.’”

Dr. Nikki Woodson remembers the awe of one of her former students as well.

“The mother called me and said, ‘oh my daughter is so excited that her principal is a black girl.’ And her response was ‘mommy, I didn’t know that black girls could be principals.”

Jones, who is a veteran of the group with 11 years as superintendent said, “When I saw the 3rd one (African American superintendent) come I got excited. When the 4th one came I really got excited, and then we got a 5th and I thought, it’s about time, and why did it take so long for this community to embrace leadership from African Americans.”

Not only has the community embraced these leaders, but it has also placed high expectations on the group, to make sure all students succeed.  And that includes addressing what’s called the “achievement gap” between white and minority students.

“There has always been an achievement gap,” said Jones. “I don’t understand why it became a focus like it’s something new. Go and look at any statistics as far back as you can go, when you start comparing the achievement of African Americans or any of our minority groups, we’ve always had a gap.”

The most recent numbers out by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that in grades four and eight, nationwide white students outperform black students on standardized tests by at least 26 points in reading and math.

“I think socioeconomics play a greater part in that gap than what people realize,” said Smith. “And for many African Americans we are still in poverty and so a lot of these young kids are coming to school with nothing. We need to see this as an opportunity. How can we educate people? How can we take them from poverty to success?”

But the group is quick to point out that this issue isn’t as simple as black and white. And that African American students are not a homogeneous group.

“To say all children who are African American need this set of strategies or these are the toolboxes to working with African American children,” said Woodson. “That’s not going to work with my two African American children. I think children need differentiated learning experiences regardless of race, based on their needs–their needs.”

What they have found in their majority-minority districts is that often times student success hinges upon parental involvement.

“Think it’s high expectations,” said Cushenberry. “I think if you have expectations and you say students are going to meet those expectations, they will. If you have low expectations they’ll reach that too.”

“Education is not political it’s practical. It’s not a partisan issue. It shouldn’t be a debate between traditional or charter school education. It should be. We see ourselves as stakeholders and how can we best educate our children,” said Hampton. “We have to see that this is urgent, our educational process, our learning process, this is urgent.”

The meeting of the superintendents will be at Light of the World Christian Church this Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and the event is free.

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