NAACP has right job, wrong tool

Friday, May 1, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Setting out to help fix Cincinnati Public Schools, the local chapter of the NAACP has picked up the wrong tool.

Reviving the 24-year-old Bronson vs. Board of Education desegregation case as a way of forcing academic improvements is like picking up a hammer to saw a board in half.

It won't work.

The Bronson case was about righting racial imbalance as a way to improve educational opportunities for minority children. It was not, and cannot be twisted into, a way to set and enforce academic proficiency.

But while selecting the wrong tool, the NAACP has, I think, selected the right job. The question is how best to get it done.

In truth, the NAACP is waving Bronson as a threat to make the Cincinnati school board try real hard to find a new superintendent who is African-American. NAACP President Milton Hinton first laughed off the idea. Then, calling the district's academic problems "horrible," he told me, "to fix them, you've got to start at the top."

He would prefer a male African-American superintendent because "seventy percent of the students are black, and young men in the school system have few black male role models."

Mr. Hinton is miffed, and rightly so I think, about the response he got from the school board when he asked to be included in the superintendent selection process. They said no, with no explanation or even a conversation. "They just sent what amounted to a form letter."

The larger problem is what Mr. Hinton sees as a pattern of poor communication between the board and the NAACP. "They put me off all the time," he said. "I'm at my wits' end dealing with this board and their unfriendly, negative attitude."

Homework assignments

Both sides should change tactics. Instead of battling in court, they need to communicate.

Rather than the NAACP telling the board what hasn't been done, the NAACP should ask what it can do to help improve education.

The board should listen and give advice. Don't rebuff the NAACP and leave Milton Hinton and his organization "always feeling unwelcome." The NAACP is an important organization and can be a powerful tool in helping solve school problems. Give them something to do.

Harriet Russell, the board's most outspoken member, wants to see an end to this strife. She told me she'd like to "lock the board and the NAACP in a room together and not let anyone out until an agreement has been reached." Sounds good. It worked for Northern Ireland, why not Cincinnati?

She added that if the NAACP and Mr. Hinton asked her what to do, she would revert to her old ways as a teacher and give them plenty of homework:

Campaign for education-friendly candidates on state and local levels.

Establish tutoring and mentoring programs.

Involve parents, grandparents and retired teachers in the schools' decision-making process.

"Ask questions."

She would urge the NAACP to marshall its forces and go door to door encouraging parents to ask their children:

"What did you do after school?" "What's your homework?" "Did you do it?" And, most important: "Can I help?"

"Just raising questions," she said, "showing concern and giving support can go a long way toward solving this problem."

Half the heat in this current debacle comes from pent-up emotions and hurt feelings. Talking will clear some of that away.

Doing something real and concrete -- however small -- will have even more of a beneficial effect.

Mr. Hinton said a male African-American superintendent would be a good role model for black male students. No doubt. But I hope we get the very best candidate, no matter what that person's race or gender.

And I hope Mr. Hinton and his membership will consider the powerful role models that tutors, mentors and concerned parents can be. The district's problems need all the solutions, and hands, we can muster.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.