Cambridge forum digs into race, class issues

Reynolds D. Graves | 5/27/2009, 6:14 a.m.
Charles J. Ogletree Jr. (left), the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and executive director of the school’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, delivered the keynote address at a community discussion on race- and class-related matters held at Cambridge City Hall on Thursday, May 21, 2009, hosted by Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons (right). Reynolds D. Graves

One problem is the lowering of expectations for minority students, Ogletree said, especially in concert with teachers whose educational approach reflects those reduced standards. Rushing to blame parents is also a problem, according to the professor, because they can be an integral part of motivating children to succeed academically.

Ogletree drew on his own experience as the child of a father who dropped out of school in fourth grade and a mother who dropped out in 10th grade — both of whom frequently told him, “We couldn’t, so you better,” he said — as evidence that while the problem often starts at home, it can also be fixed there.

Looking forward, Ogletree stressed the importance of focusing resources on helping children now as an investment in the country’s future development. Asked which issues would be key in helping reduce the achievement gap for minority students, Ogletree cited three:

“The stimulus package that was signed into law this spring, which will give a significant amount of money to education, health care and equal opportunity employment; the Harlem [Children’s Zone] model of education that requires the community around underrepresented children to be built up around them, as opposed to moving them to another community to seek a proper education; and the reformation of the No Child Left Behind Act, and the new direction that it will take.”

In addition to Ogletree’s keynote, last Thursday’s event also featured coordinated group breakout sessions, which gave Cambridge residents the opportunity to voice race- and class-related concerns directly to members of the Cambridge City Council, with the prospect of action by the elected body to follow.