Oprah Shouldn’t Give Up on Our Kids, by Deneen Borelli

After visiting our nation’s failing urban public schools, Oprah Winfrey felt frustrated.  In an interview with Newsweek magazine, she said:  “I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools in the U.S.  The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there.  In America if you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers.”

While Winfrey’s frustration was understandable if not commendable, more puzzling was her response.  She created the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls – in South Africa.

This new $40 million institution features science and computer labs, a gymnasium, library, theater, health center, beauty salon and sports fields.  The girls who are fortunate enough to attend the Oprah Academy can use the knowledge and experience they gain there to strive for a successful future.  Indeed, it represents both vision and generosity on the part of Winfrey.  So why hasn’t she tried that same thing in her own backyard?

Imagine if Winfrey used her resources to create charter schools here in America.  Imagine if she took on the problem of our failing public schools on her talk show and highlighted school choice options such as charter schools, vouchers and tax credits.  Her vocal support for school choice could generate national interest and rally support for change that would benefit millions of children trapped in failing public schools. 

I personally know of 260 children currently enrolled in The Opportunity Charter School in Harlem who would love to tell Winfrey their personal stories.  They would love for her to know that, if it wasn’t for this school, approximately 50 percent of them still wouldn’t be able to read.  Kids would not be staying after school to work on their homework with their teachers, and a structured environment and the student’s sense of belonging fostered by the school would be lost.

As an Opportunity Charter School board member, I would gladly introduce Winfrey to these children whose hopes and dreams depend on the promise offered by this charter school.  It would certainly give her a more hopeful feeling about the future of our inner-city kids if the right tools are made available to them.

Although Winfrey felt that American students had the wrong focus, there are American students who desperately want to learn but need a helping hand.  That is why it is reassuring to know there are still people such as Derrick Brooks who are willing to help.

Brooks, a linebacker with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has teamed up with the DeBartolo Family Foundation, a Tampa Bay-focused charity, to create the Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High School.  When it opens in the fall of 2007, Brooks-DeBartolo High will become the only charter high school in Hillsborough County, Florida.

Charter schools are state-funded schools that can operate independent from state mandates.  This freedom allows teachers to instruct each child according to their individual needs.  Hard work, discipline and personal responsibility are core values students are taught to create a performance-driven and results-oriented environment.

Brooks-DeBartolo High hopes to serve 300 students and will work with local colleges, universities and technical and vocational schools to encourage and prepare students to continue their education past the 12th grade.

Brooks’ hard work and determination that propelled him to ten Pro Bowls is also apparent in his charitable work in the Tampa Bay community.  Brooks stresses his commitment on his charity’s web site, saying, “I just didn’t want to write checks, show up for press conferences, and then drive off in my SUV and never see the kids until next Thanksgiving or next Christmas.”

Such hands-on involvement is desperately needed.  Too many inner-city children are surrounded by despair – the lack of two-parent households, the lack of nutritional meals and proper healthcare, generations of poor education, violence and exposure to the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse.  Children can’t be blamed for these things, but adding failing public schools to the mix is a recipe for disaster.

Brooks is showing the way toward reforming our schools and giving inner-city the quality education they so desperately.  Hopefully, Oprah Winfrey will soon follow his lead.

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Deneen Borelli is a fellow with the black leadership network Project 21.  Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21 or the National Center for Public Policy Research.

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