The Washington Post


Doing the Best With What We Have

An inexpensive way to show students that what happens in
school will make a difference in their lives

William Raspberry, Copyright, The Washington Post April 6, 1992.

Let the professional academics struggle to transform the organization and content of public instruction. All Orlando B. Doyle wants to do is make the education that already exists accessible to the boys and girls in Detroit's inner city.

It isn't accessible now, he believes, because the children aren't ready for it - not because of the pedagogical shortcomings of the schools but because they don't believe what happens in schoolrooms will make any real difference in their lives.

That insight led Doyle to create a speakers' program called Impact Seminars for Youth and to recruit black professionals (or any caring adult per Impact Seminars) to lecture at Detroit's middle schools.

If it works (and Doyle believes it's working already), it will be an incredibly cheap remedy. Apart from Doyle's own considerable effort, the volunteers he recruits are asked only to visit one school a year for one hour.

"My idea is not to put a lot of requirements on the volunteers but to flood the schools with professionals who can serve as role models" he told me in a recent interview. "I'm talking literally hundreds of volunteers. With such a large pool of speakers, each middle school can have a different speaker virtually every day of the school year."

Which, of course, is just the opposite of what other mentor/role models try to achieve. The more accepted - and thoroughly plausible - idea is that young people are most likely to improve their behavior under the consistent influence of a caring adult. Consistency is the key, the thought being that it takes time to get past the barriers of personality and style, to build trust. It makes sense.

But so does Doyle's idea. The role-model approach is calculated to have a particular child identify with a particular adult, to try to become like that adult. The Impact Seminar approach is an attempt to transmit to children the value of education no matter what they aspire to be - and to change the culture so that education can take place.

"We hope that by flooding the schools with successful adults - engineers, physicians, salesmen, reporters, whatever - all of them talking about the importance of what they learned in school - we can shift the peer pressure and the psychology toward valuing education," Doyle said. "It's an intense experience for the children, who get the message driven home in dozens of ways, with dozens of

examples, by dozens of professionals from different fields. It has to make an impact.

"And yet the commitment for any one speaker is so small that nobody can say they don't have the time."

Since starting from zero some 15 months ago, Impact Seminars has recruited some 300 speakers and 60 teachers in five Detroit middle schools. "For these 3,000 students, this provides over 12,000 student-hours of direct contact with role models," says Doyle.

And there's a bonus. "Virtually all of our speakers are eager to repeat," he says, "and many have committed themselves to provide other assistance - as a direct result of the personal relationships they have developed with the teachers and students. This concept is not a panacea, but it does offer a way to prime the pump."

Doyle doesn't even address the question of school reform, new curricula or revamped teaching techniques. These things matter only after children have embraced two critical facts about school learning: that they can do it and that it matters.

Inner-city youngsters have been told so often how they are victimized by poverty and racism - have heard so many caring adults cite these factors as an explanation for school failure - that many of them really doubt that they can learn the things that "smart" kids know. Indeed, if they listen to some of us they might well conclude that they aren't expected to learn.

Doyle's Impact Seminars should help dispel that notion. The involvement of hundreds of busy adults, all drumming the study-and-learn message, should at least let the children know we expect them to learn and, therefore, that we believe they can learn.

And the fact that these same adults, successful in a wide range of professions, all agree on the importance of schooling to their success might help to drive home the second message: that school learning matters.

What Doyle is doing in a handful of middle schools in Detroit won't transform education. But I'd be astounded if it doesn't make a significant difference for a few hundred kids and teach us all one more thing we can do while we're waiting for school reform.

(c) 1992 The Washington Post Writers Group. Reprinted with permission. Red text hilited by Impact Seminars