A civil rights lawyer and Harvard law school graduate originally from Elkhart, Ind., Thomas Atkins became Indiana University’s first African-American student body President in 1960 and made it a priority to assist underrepresented groups, by providing academic support, leadership activities, and cultural exposure.
For the better part of the last two decades, Indiana University’s Atkins Center has kept up the mission of its namesake by partnering with grade schools to offer mentoring and guidance from minority students at IU to a younger generation. Director Vincent Isom said that includes a message of overcoming challenges.
“We’re hoping to plant a seed that college is a reality for them, most are first generation college students and are in an environment where they think it’s not possible to go to colleges,” Isom said.
Thomas Atkins lived in New York for several years before succumbing, in 1998, to an illness named for another prominent New Yorker — Lou Gehrig’s disease. And this school year an Atkins center group traveled to Manhattan to work with students in Atkins’ adopted home town. The Atkins group visited PS 145, the Bloomingdale School, on Manhattan’s upper west side. The school has more than 450 students. More than 60 percent are Latino and about 30 percent are African-American. Teacher Ivelisse Alvarez said serving such a diverse student base presents its own challenges.
“It’s so complex. So many things, so many challenges and these are things that we encounter every day,” she said. “Many times it’s the shelters; we have a large population of students in temporary housing… others its issues with housing, immigration, second language, unemployment.
According to statistics from the New York City department of education for the 2008-2009 school year, PS 145 scored below the city average in a number of areas. City University of New York sociology and black studies professor Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis said school data tells an important story.
“No matter where you go in the United States you’ll find gaps in performance and I don’t think these gaps are inherent or genetic or they come from parents,” he said. “I think there’s a chance for us to do something to block and reduce and change the opportunities that people face so Indianapolis needs to be experimenting, Bloomington needs to experiment.”
One such experiment is one-on-one mentoring offered by the Atkins Center’s program, in which IU sophomore Ceceily Brickley participates.
“I just hope that I can help a kid want to go to college and have that drive to go to college even if maybe financially their not in the best situation,” said the sophomore. “I really hope that I can just motivate them to go to college. They see kids like me who reach out to them and it makes them want to do the same, in turn one day, for other kids.”
One experimental program which hasn’t worked, at least for minority students, Lewis said , is often seen as a leader in broad-based childhood education.
“In the 1970s the emergence of Sesame Street was a land mark because people were very excited and because it was educational programming,” Lewis said. “But we actually had an evaluation by Thomas Cook that found for economically disadvantaged families because parents were not watching the program with their children and able to talk with them about the different lessons middle class and affluent parents got much more out of it and their children performed way higher than students who were from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Largely because their parents were working.”
But officials at PS 145, like Assistant Principal Lorraine Uhlmann, say the Atkins Center program appears to be working for students like Kwame, a 4th grader with a passion for art.
“Kwame has changed,” she said. “His drawings used to be only for him he didn’t share them with other people. What an experience it has been for him it has changed his personality, he is more outgoing, and I suspect that we will hear from him later on in his life.”
Lewis argues the American Public School system is biased and while resources have been poured into more disadvantaged schools over the past 10 years, suburban schools have seen sustained support for at least the last 30, meaning there will be inequalities in data. Nonetheless, Lewis said he’s optimistic about a future he sees including educational diversity and consistent quality for all students.
“We continue to experiment and sometimes we have success, but we haven’t figured out how to do it systematically,” he conceded. “And that’s what the science of research is and that’s what dedicated professionals and practitioners are doing everyday in our schools. Trying to figure out how to make the best moves possible to prepare for a future of a different United States that we’ve ever seen.”
Assistant Principal Uhlmann said the key may be convincing students that Lewis’ future is possible for any of them.
“They have to know that they can do anything they want that money should not be where you are or where you live doesn’t necessarily define who you are. It doesn’t matter if you live in a project or if you live in a suburban house. We’re all the same we all have dreams. They should hold on to their dreams that no matter who they are no matter where they come from what their family is they can achieve it.”