Show the way

April 11, 2004

THE SCHOOLS lacked enough desks. The students came. Classes were moved outside, under the schoolyard trees. Still, the students came. First-grade class size sometimes exceeded 100 students, with one teacher. And still they came.

They came when the Republic of Kenya announced a year ago that as part of a national economic recovery plan, public schooling up to grade eight would be offered free. By government and World Bank project estimates, enrollment has swollen past 7 million, an increase of more than 1 million students.

Parents and even some grandparents asked to enroll alongside the children; financial hardship, rural lifestyles and national strife had forced many to forgo schooling when they were younger, but they longed for the chance to learn. They were willing to sit side by side with grade-schoolers until adult classes could be organized.

Readers who know African-American history hear this story and feel a pang of recognition: Following emancipation, a movement to educate former slaves was buoyed by their self-determination: Though previously denied the chance to learn to read, and facing obstacles of segregation, many parents ensured that their children attended newly formed schools for blacks, and joined their children at study. Illiteracy among blacks, estimated at 80 percent in 1870, plummeted to 44.2 percent by 1900 -- an achievement considered a milestone in literacy development.

More than a century later, here we sit, across the globe from struggling Kenya's latest attempt at free public education, frowning over a recent report from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and other groups. It says half or more American black, Hispanic and Native American youth have been walking away from -- or elbowed out of -- their chance at a secure place in the global economy: a free public education.

An executive of one of the study's sponsoring groups called the dropout crisis among America's minority children "devastating for individual communities and the economic vitality of this country."

Baltimore knows this: More than 200,000 city adults over age 16 are jobless. Many are hampered by incomplete schooling, The Sun reported last month. Nearly a third of Baltimore adults lack a high school diploma or equivalent after too many years of too many students leaving school or being left behind.

It will take much more than the recently claimed increase in the city's graduation rate to lead Baltimore out of this valley. Government, schools, industry and nonprofits must of course do their part. History, and the inspiring example of Kenya's turnout, also remind us that progress will depend on the individual acts of perseverance of students and parents who are determined to find the way. They must come.

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