"Empowerment,'' a word George Bush hung his hat on during hisState of the Union address, means many things to many people. One wonders how Mr. Bush's version will ever get off the ground if he never finds the money to pursue the steps to ''make this land all that it should be,'' especially for those languishing on the bottom of the social and economic scale.
A group of educators, tired of the repeated litany of ills waiting to drag down the futures of the 10 million black children living in this country, met recently at Morgan State University to plan their own assault on the worst problems.
Clearly, there can be no empowerment without full participation in the financial benefits of what is still the world's mightiest economy. Clearly, that cannot come without new successes in education, especially for the boys who will grow up to become the fathers and breadwinners of the next generation of black children.
Vinetta Jones, dean of Morgan's School of Education and Urban Studies, assembled the group from across the country to serve as an advisory board for the Center for the Education of African American Males. As one board member put it, targeting educational reforms on the situation of boys works not only because of the historic failures of professional education in dealing with black males, but because the boys act as bellwethers: What works for them will help improve the schools for everyone.
The center, funded by a three-year grant from the Abell Foundation, seeks to shift the focus of educational reform from remediation, after-the-fact correction of failures already observed, to an approach that prevents failures. Enrichment, both to promote academic success as a reachable goal for the boys and to enhance their experience of the school environment, is to be its modus operandi.
What occurred was a think-tank session. Edmund Gordon, a Yale University psychologist, led off with a discussion of the obstacles ahead, followed by a rousing attack on educational inequities by Bruce Hare of Syracuse. High dropout rates among inner-city disadvantaged youth, he said, must be regarded as ''eviction rates,'' effective denials of opportunity, to be attacked with utmost vigor.
Ronald Ferguson of Harvard tracked standardized test scores against projected income and economic success rates. Others began chipping in the results of their analyses. Plans were laid for a quarterly publication, summarizing the findings of collaborative research and pointing interested professionals to the individuals involved.
What it all came down to, according to Dr. Jones who started it all, was a declared intention to take in hand the education of black children, especially boys. The center's work, in addition to setting up its own innovative programs such as ''Project 2000,'' which brings male volunteers into elementary school classrooms Baltimore, Washington, Dade County, Florida, and Ohio, will be to centralize and collect materials on the many reform efforts being set up around the country.
This will make it easy for educators in disparate locations to know the results of experiments everywhere. Morgan already has had inquiries from graduate students all over the country seeking access to the materials it collects and offering suggestions on research directions.
The center's functions, described in the proposal setting it up, are to bring black male role models into the classroom, a la ''Project 2000;'' teacher recruitment and training, including efforts to attract more black males to teaching; curriculum revisions to focus on the specific needs of black male primary and secondary students; programs to enhance parental participation in the schools; reaching out to community organizations and churches to help them set up new programs that promote education; and research and intervention to overcome negative peer pressure.
That's a full plate. What it finally comes down to is a declaration that the burgeoning problems besetting black youth can be solved if broken into their constituent parts and attacked aggressively. No-win analysis leads to no-win answers, many around the table noted, and cannot be allowed to define the future for so many millions of young people.
In the backdrop, economic reports point out that 80 percent of all new entrants to the American labor force during this decade must come from the ranks of those formerly accorded low desirability as applicants: women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians. Other reports say that all workers, including those already in relatively secure positions, will need retraining to keep up with the rapid technological changes reshaping the work they do.
The country can no longer afford a scheme of education under which a few people need high-quality education and the rest go forth as low-level workers. Now, it needs higher participation from all hands, as numerically controlled industrial processes, computer-driven office equipment and high-tech equipment reach down to the lowest levels of the modern business enterprise.
Thus, the educators' new thrust comes at a good time. Marching orders are sorely needed if the nation's schools are ever to learn to meet the needs of those once deemed too benighted to ever walk in the light of high achievement.
Garland L. Thompson is an editorial writer for The Sun.