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Commentary: Don't whine, get involved in kids' education

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  • Martin: Parents talk about failing schools but need to look at their own role
  • Education requires committed teachers and informed, active parents
  • Pay attention to parent-teacher conferences, your child's progress
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By Roland S. Martin
CNN Contributor
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Editor's Note: Join Roland S. Martin for his weekly sound-off segment on CNN.com Live at 10:30 a.m. ET Wednesday. If you're passionate about politics, he wants to hear from you. Martin, a nationally syndicated columnist and Chicago-based radio host, is the author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith" and "Speak, Brother! A Black Man's View of America." Please visit his Web site.

Roland Martin and his wife took in four nieces to help them catch up academically.

Roland Martin and his wife took in four nieces to help them catch up academically.

(CNN) -- Today was my first day in elementary school.

My wife and I have been married seven-and-a-half years and we don't have any children. But two weeks ago, we persuaded one of my three sisters to send her four girls -- ages 9, 7 and twin 4-year-olds -- to Chicago, Illinois, so we could take care of them and get them caught up academically.

I take seriously my role as a godfather and uncle. For a lot of folks, being a godfather is all about a ceremony and giving gifts on birthdays and Christmas.

But if you remember the admonition of the priest or pastor, the purpose of a godfather is to stand in the gap for the parents when they are unable to do so. That has surely been the case in my family. The consequence of drama in a marriage has left the two older nieces behind academically.

So we decided that it's time for them to be in a stable environment , immersed in academics. That's what took me to the nearby Chicago public school.

As I filled out the paperwork and looked through the folder provided by the school, I came across a variety of forms: for a school fundraiser at a restaurant, a raffle, and an application to join the school's Parent-Teacher Association.

For me, there is nothing more important than that PTA application.

In a world where the two presidential candidates spar over education funding, merit pay for teachers and whether vouchers are a good idea, a lot of folks spend their time complaining. They talk about failing schools and what administrators should be doing, and how teachers don't care like they did back in the day.

I'm sure you've heard the complaints before.

Trust me, I get it when folks say schools need more funding. But I also remember a conversation a few years ago on the syndicated television show America's Black Forum. Education advocate Jonathan Kozol was arguing that the issue is money, and Ohio's Wilberforce University president, the Rev. Floyd Flake, said that is just one of the critical elements.

Flake, a former congressman who runs his own school in New York, asked why schools in Washington, D.C. can spend more than $10,000 per child and kids fail, yet his New York school was spending $5,400 at the time and more than 75 percent were passing.

Kozol argued that one reason was Flake's charisma as a leader, but Flake contended -- and I agree -- that success is related to a nurturing environment where parents are mandated to take an active role in their child's education.

I thought of this in May during a conversation on my Chicago radio show with Rufus Williams, president of the Chicago Board of Education. A lot of parents called in, angry with the Chicago school system because they didn't find out until graduation that their child would not graduate because of failing scores.

The phone lines lit up and they bombarded Williams with all kinds of insults.

He promised to get them answers. The next day, he had them.

Apparently, parents were sent reminders during every report-card period when their child was at risk of failing.

But the parents couldn't say the dog ate the sheet before it came through the door. The parents had come to the school themselves to pick up the cards, and the warning was attached.

So the real deal was that these parents were informed of their child's poor classroom performance, but chose to overlook it.

Guess what? The phones were silent. Oh how the truth hurt.

The reality is that whether it's the 390,000 kids in Chicago public schools, or millions across the country, no school can educate the next generation alone. It requires committed teachers, but also informed and active parents who are willing to make sacrifices.

It would have been easy for my wife and me to live in our empty nest, take get-away trips on the weekend, or save a ton of dough and retire early. But there was no way I could sit back as those four girls were denied even a fighting chance at a great education so they could live their lives to the fullest.

One of my first questions was related to the dates of the parent-teacher conferences. I wanted to plug them into my Blackberry immediately. Those sessions are a priority. I can guarantee you the teachers will know me by name, and not just because I'm on CNN or WVON Radio.

See, I had good role models: my parents. They didn't go to college and have six-figure jobs. They simply cared about the education of their five children.

So, the nation's children are preparing for another school year. The parents must do the same thing.

My nieces begin September 2. We guardians and parents need to get our minds right, and make the decision now whether we are going to be those who work for solutions or those who just whine about the deficiencies.

Show up on the first day and do not make it your last. There is no greater gift you can provide your children, nieces, nephews or grandchildren than your full attention to their educations. As the United Negro College Fund has said for years: A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

All About ChicagoElementary and High School EducationAmerican Federation of Teachers

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