MIAMI — T. Willard Fair has developed a reputation for being controversial.
In the early 1980s, he authored a column called “N-word of the week,” shining an often unwelcome spotlight on prominent black people whose behavior he found unacceptable. As a staunch Republican, he has frequently drawn the ire of many in the black community because of his unpopular stances on education, affirmative action and other social issues.
Fair, who has been the president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Miami for over 40 years, said he hopes that in 2010, the black community will agree with him on one thing: that educational excellence among Liberty City’s children must become a community-wide priority if the youth are to succeed.
To that end, Fair has kicked off a new initiative aimed at galvanizing adults in the Liberty City community around what he calls a process necessary to save the lives of its children.
Launched on Jan. 4 with Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith and former Gov. Jeb Bush in attendance, the initiative, called the “Development Revolution,” will attempt to get adults engaged in promoting educational excellence among inner-city children.
Khalid Salahuddin has been chairman of the board of directors for the Urban League for more than a year. The assistant director at the Port of Miami told the South Florida Times that, “The Development Revolution is an idea whose time has come. God willing, this program and effort will be successful in changing the trend of failure and apathy that many accept as normal when it comes to our children's education. The Urban League is outraged by what is taking place and so should all right-minded adults.”
Incensed that all of Liberty City’s high schools are considered chronic failures even though they have nationally prominent football programs, Fair said his agency’s focus must be on reversing educational indifference among Liberty City’s adults.
Booker T. Washington, Miami Northwestern, Edison and Miami Jackson high schools are rated “F.” Miami Central’s rating rose from an “F” to a “D” last year.
To illustrate the importance of parental involvement, Fair, a single grandfather of one, cited the difference between a child being “sent to school” and a child who simply “goes to school.”
When a parent sends his child to school, Fair explained, the student arrives informed and ready to learn. Conversely, a child who goes to school is often unprepared and lacks knowledge of age-appropriate fundamentals, such as a kindergartner not knowing his or her alphabets or how to spell his or her name.
Fair, the first black chairman of Florida’s Board of Education, said that if educational reform occurs within the schools, yet children return to homes, neighborhoods and churches that do not reinforce the reform, the efforts are for naught.
The Urban League of Greater Miami has compiled statistics to bolster its claims that educational reform must include adults. According to its research, of the 106 schools in the U. S. Census statistical area that includes Miami-Dade County, 52 are considered “drop-out factories,” with fewer than 60 percent of freshmen making it to graduation on time.
“The theme is still the same. We control our destiny. There are circumstances that we have no control over, but if we can find the inner strength and purpose, we will outlast those circumstances,” Fair said.
While the vision for the initiative is clearly to raise the educational level of Liberty City students, the exact process for getting there is one that Fair said will unfold organically, based on the realities of the community. Unlike other community initiatives that include benchmarks to measure progress and deadlines for achieving key goals, the Development Revolution has no such requirements. The one certainty is that an aggressive outreach component that includes the use of billboards to broadcast the importance of parental involvement in a child’s education will be a part of the campaign.
Fair hopes to enlist the active participation of Miami’s black mega-churches; and he has convened a group of black men that he calls his “Posse,” whose presence at critical events within the community he said will send the message that black men are interested in what happens to black children.
Approaching the churches without an established agenda is critical, Fair said, adding that he is open to the religious institutions’ ideas about how to engage their congregations in the business of saving the children.
The initiative has the support of Florida’s education commissioner.
“The Miami Urban League’s Development Revolution initiative is vital in helping to get that work done as it inspires parents to actively exercise the influence they have over their child’s education,’’ Smith, Florida’s education commissioner, said in a statement. “When you pair that active influence with an equal expectation for an effective and rewarding classroom experience, you create a sure formula for student success.’’
The initiative will focus its energy on one Liberty City school in particular: Dr. Henry W. Mack/West Little River Elementary, across the street from the Urban League’s main office. The “F” rated school is led by Martha Harris, who has been the school’s principal since August. Harris’ previous tenure was as assistant principal at two middle schools. One of them had a “C” grade; the other had a “D.” She helped raise them both to an “A.”
In an emailed statement, she said, “I am delighted to have the opportunity to form a partnership with the Urban League of Greater Miami. Community support can really make a difference in a small elementary school like ours. We look to working together with the Urban League for the benefit of our students.”
The campaign is being supported by corporations including Apple and Anheuser-Busch, education-focused companies and advocacy groups such as Schoolcast, Life Skills Centers and Charter Schools USA, along with advocacy groups such as the Campaign for Excellent Education.
“Skin color is no longer an obstacle, and we should not allow anybody to indicate or imply that it is in 2010,” Fair said.
Photo: T. Willard Fair