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UMBC's Hrabowski challenges Howard parents to lay educational foundation at home

UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski
UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski (Christopher T. Assaf / Baltimore Sun File)

Over and again, Freeman A. Hrabowski called Howard County's African-American community fortunate to be living in "the richest county in the richest state in the richest country in the world."

Speaking at a "parent empowerment and engagement forum" in Columbia this week, the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County then implored African-American parents to seize opportunities and resources within the county to help their children succeed.

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"A lot of people would like to live in Howard County," Hrabowski said. "You might say, 'I'm not rich,' but you're in a county where the superintendent can get up and talk about things going on to help our children."

Hrabowski was the featured speaker at Monday's event, sponsored by the Howard County public schools and the African American Community Roundtable of Howard County. The forum was held as those two entities announced a collaborative effort to develop educational tools and programs, including an African American Parent Academy.

The Rev. Robert Turner, pastor at St. John Baptist Church in Columbia and roundtable vice chair, said the goal of the academy is to be "a multiple-venue, multiple-media" system helping parents to be advocates for their children.

Along those lines, county schools Superintendent Renee Foose said the school system is developing a program that will enable all parents to track their children's grades and attendance while communicating with the school via text and email. She said the system is also developing a math portal to enable parents to view what their children are being taught.

Hrabowski, who grew up a math prodigy during the era of segregation in Birmingham, Ala., was jailed during civil rights protests and went on to become one of the nation's most renowned educators. Named one of the world's most influential leaders by Time magazine in 2012, he has led UMBC's rise into the national spotlight. The school annually earns high marks on U.S. News and World Reports' college rankings, and has become a magnet for African-Americans seeking to earn doctorates in the sciences.

His comments gave Howard's public school community a firsthand look at what universities expect from incoming freshmen while lauding the school system's efforts.

Hrabowski stressed the importance of making sure students master standardized tests, scoffing at the notion that exams such as the SAT and ACT are culturally biased against students of color.

"For years, I wrote questions for the SAT, and I think I'm black. I was the last time I looked," Hrabowski said, prompting laughter from the audience. "It's about teaching children how to read and think. If they're going to do well in school, they have to learn to write well and speak well, but tests will be an inevitable part of what they do."

Hrabowski said Maryland-born students of all races who attend UMBC tend to be well prepared and well credentialed, with high test scores and numerous Advanced Placement credits.

"However," he said, "this state, just like the country, also has large numbers of students from families of color and working families who have not acquired the skills they need to do well on standardized tests. We have those well equipped to compete and large numbers of those who, unfortunately, need a lot more help in order to prepare for the working world."

Hrabowski said he was encouraged by Howard's efforts to prepare its students for education beyond high school.

"This school system is saying, 'We're not perfect. We may be the richest county. Some kids are doing well, some are not. Some people have a great attitude, others may not. Some may look at a child and say, 'You're going to be the best,' others may look and you're not sure what they're thinking.

"This is real. But that is America," he said. "And the question is: How do we get leaders that say, 'Let's look at all the issues?' "

The key to unlocking answers, he said, is parental involvement.

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"I want parents to understand how very important it is for them to play a key role in helping their students achieve in school. I want them to understand the importance of turning the television off, focusing on study habits, on reading and mathematics and talking about ideas in the home," Hrabowski added.

"And I want parents to understand that they needed to support teachers in raising the bar for every child.".

Foose echoed the sentiments, saying, "We have the same values on what we want. We want our children, your children, my students, to be successful when they graduate.

"If I am giving them a diploma, and they're entering the world of work, or the world of higher education, or if they're staying at home with you, they should be able to make that choice and be academically prepared to do whatever it is they want to do."

Speaking from his office a day after the event, Hrabowski said he hopes parents attending the assembly emphasize what he called old-fashioned values. Such parents, he said, "place emphasis on respecting the teacher, on hard work, on belief in self and on never giving up. They are constantly focusing on academics."

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