For most of the women at this year’s annual education conference, sponsored by the Hill District Education Council, raising their African-American male children can be a full time job filled with uncertainty.

During a breakout session on this topic, the handful of mothers in the room shared stories of their struggle, revealing both the caring nature of their sons and their personal disillusionment with the education system.

EMPOWERING PARENTS—Tamanika Howze facilitates a breakout session on raising an African-American male. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“You have to celebrate yourselves because you have to first believe in yourself,” said Tamanika Howze, the session’s facilitator and director of the Kingsley-Lincoln Freedom School. “Through education, I set the tone in my household. My children always saw me reading; I always took them to cultural events. We have to start very young. If you have more CDs than books, it says you don’t have much value in education and our children see it.”

This year’s conference “Summoning the Village,” used parent engagement to push forward with improving education for African-American students in the Pittsburgh Public School District. In the session on raising an African-American male, the women were given the tools and motivation necessary to serve as advocates to ensure quality and equity in their children’s schools.

“We want to engage our sons around people with positive qualities. Children have to feel centered in our history and our culture,” Howze said. “Sometimes we know when we go to school, it’s not welcoming, but we have to stand up for our children. We have teachers, we have administrators who do not respect our children. The first teacher, the most important teacher, is the one who carries you.”

The daylong conference was held at Milliones University Prep High School on Nov. 12. Entitled “Empowering Parents and Community to Create a Culture of Educational Excellence in the Hill District,” the event was organized and created from parent input.

“This activity today was geared towards parents because we feel like if we strengthen parents, we strengthen families,” said Eric Ewell, HDEC Parent Organizer. “All of these topics came from parent interest. We had a uniform giveaway and there were about 50 or 60 parents so we gave them a survey asking them what issues they’d like to know more about.”

The series of topics covered included bullying, mental health, mentoring, academic achievement and raising an African-American male. Unfortunately the seats in the school’s auditorium were less than half full and while there were parents in attendance, a large majority of the audience was made up of educators and community activists.

“We’re definitely trying to rebuild the community as much as possible and we feel like education is the key to that,” Ewell said. “The difficult part becomes, we have an event like this and we try to put a lot of effort into it, but we may not get the best response possible.”

The conference’s panelists and breakout session leaders represented a variety of backgrounds, but all had ties to education through social services organizations, government and spiritual institutions. Their advice to the parents ranged from broad concepts of advocating for school reform, to information on how to prepare their children for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests.

“One of the biggest things I learned today is the importance of forming these strong relationships with our kids early, because if we don’t, they won’t be able to form other relationships with adults,” said mother Traci Johnson. “I’m going to start working with my child to begin to get into the mindset of thinking about things from someone else’s perspective and what others are feeling.”

HDEC is a community based organization advocating for the educational needs of the Hill District, which include low achievement, parent involvement, and professional accountability. The organization, co-founded by Rev. Johnnie Monroe and former Councilman Sala Udin, is made up of educators, education advocates and parents.

“All of the Hill District principals are members of the Hill District Education Council and one of our commitments was to open our doors to the community for these kinds of events,” said Milliones Principal Derrick Hardy. “Today is a starting point for great conversation about making a positive impact for African-American children. (Participants should) internalize it and begin making changes immediately to model things they’ve heard today.”

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