Values haven't changed in success for children

October 18, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

"Listen, I grew up in a 'pot-bellied school' in Alabama," Dr. Anne Emory is saying passionately. "My school didn't even have indoor plumbing. But, my parents taught me to believe that no one can be a better person than me. They taught me always to be honest. And they taught me that I have a mind and that my mind can be developed. I believe it's because of my parents' teaching that I am where I am today."

"But that was then," I say. "Can those values work for today's youth?"

"Oh absolutely," answers Dr. Emory. "Nothing has changed."

Dr. Emory, 65, is one of the city's most esteemed educators; a former member of the state Board of Education, a former teacher, principal, and administrator in city schools. Today, as president of the Maryland Chapter of the Coalition of 100 Black Women, she works to open educational opportunities for young women. It was because of her educational expertise combined with her up-from-poverty background that I spoke with her yesterday.

I wanted her reaction to the growing number of reports suggesting that today's under-privileged children may find it increasingly difficult to compete in our technological society. Experts say jobs of the future will require people with a high degree of technical skills, people who will be able to interface with their ever-mutating equipment in ways that are creative and innovative. To reach this degree of comfort, the experts say, children will need to be exposed to computer technology at as young an age as possible.

Yet, a recent survey of 1990 Census data by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that millions of American children live in homes that do not even have a telephone.

"The telephone is the most basic piece of communications technology that we have," says William P. O'Hare, a researcher with the Baltimore-based foundation. "It is not hard to imagine that a family that does not even have a phone is unlikely to possess a home computer, or to possess the resources to eventually hook onto the information superhighway.

"There is a real danger that we are turning into a society divided between the haves, who are computer-literate; and the have-nots, who are locked out of the technology and therefore locked out of any real opportunities to advance themselves."

Actually, this division may already be occurring, says Arloc Sherman, an analyst with the Children's Defense Fund in Washington. Mr. Sherman says says poor families today are less likely to possess the resources to prepare their children to escape poverty.

"We used to have poor families," says Mr. Sherman, "where the family was at least intact. Today, poor children are most likely to live in single-parent homes. And the poverty of those homes is likely to be far more severe. Meanwhile, on the other end of the scale, there is a lot of evidence that people who are adept at computers have greater career opportunities, earn higher wages, and enjoy greater security against layoffs and down-sizing."

All of which presents a pretty bleak picture, particularly when you consider that under-privileged children also are more likely to attend under-funded schools.

But Dr. Emory believes schools can prepare children in other ways. "No computer will determine the quality of the individual," she says. "Self-empowerment, self-affirmation -- these are just as important to success as access to technology."

To demonstrate this, Dr. Emory refers me to one of her former students: Dr. Walter Royal 3rd, who is a neural virologist at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Royal, 39, says he grew up in a lower-middle-class home in West Baltimore. Neither of his parents had college degrees, he says. But both emphasized the importance of an education.

"Families and schools can prepare their children to become prepared," he says. "They can give their children some sense of what's out there, and . . . they can get it if they try."

Dr. Jerome Atkins agrees. He is assistant dean of the School of Engineering at Morgan State University. "There are ways to compensate for any kind of deficiencies in the home," he says.

"It is not the quality of the computer that is important, it is the quality of the educational environment."

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