The lively art of conversation was the order of the day, Feb. 20, and the auditorium of the Proviso East Math & Science Academy, 8601 W. Roosevelt Rd., Forest Park, was filled with students, parents, politicians and educators.

State Sen. Kimberley Lightford (D-4th) sponsored the symposium on education and the moderator was Phil Jackson, CEO/president of the Black Star Project. Founded in 1996, it is committed to improving the education gap in the black and Latino communities, providing educational services.

Invited to participate in the panel discussion were Jack Wuest, Alternative School Network; Gary Lawson, Illinois State Police; Sean Noble, Voices of Illinois Children; Chris Welch, president, Dist. 209; Bryce O. Walker, president, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity; Robert Ingram, Kappa Alpha Phi Fraternity; Debra Strauss, president, Illinois PTA; Pastor Jacques Conway, Oak Park-River Forest Tutoring Program; Monet Davis, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority; Pastor Rashard Saffo, Proviso West Suburban Branch NAACP; and state representatives Karen Yarbrough and LaShawn Ford.

Rev. Conway said, “I love the PTOs and all this other stuff, but I’m telling you our kids are at a disadvantage. They need to face that disadvantage. In this country, education is not a priority. We don’t rank in the top 25 in the world when it comes to educating our children. How do we get you the best opportunity to achieve success?”

Sen. Lightford asked Conway, “What are the solutions?” Conway said the churches, fraternities, and parents should all be involved. “It has to take a concerted effort of the adults, who say, ‘I’m going to make a difference in one child’s life.’ One adult can make a difference in one child’s life. When I see youngsters with their pants hanging off their behind I know there is an opportunity for me to try to make a difference.”

Lightford asked the students in attendance, “If you are aware of a program, why aren’t you guys coming for the help?”

One student said she would like to have something that interests her. She also said she was tired of attending meetings where adults talk to young people, lecturing them. Another young person said he was interested in tutoring programs. Other suggestions from students were jobs programs, more recreational activities, martial arts programs, gymnastics and field programs. Lightford pointed out that one of the problems is getting funding for these programs. There is also a problem with transportation costs. She expressed the need for anger management programs and resource data bases where people can obtain information. There are lots of programs out there, she said, but getting the information to our young people is a problem.

Panelist Jack Wuest said, “My perspective is parents are really strapped. There are not always two parents, maybe just one parent. What we’ve seen is not a recession, but in the Black and Latino communities there is a depression. Families have lost their homes, lost their jobs; you got 18-20 million people who have lost jobs. They can’t make ends meet for their families. That is devastating to their family life. There is no way around it; that is not going to change much. Mayor Daley last week said we are spending $800 million on the military, let’s take $400 million of that and fund our schools, fund our government and fund jobs for people who want jobs and it will make a enormous difference.”

Gary Lawson of the state police said there has to be a dialogue between community and police. “Students know what is going on in schools. The myth of not snitching – they need to contact anonymously because it will help everybody. We need to start educating our children at fourth and fifth grade. You lose the students at fifth grade if you don’t educate them.”

One woman who lost her son to violence asked students in the auditorium to stand up if they have lost someone to violence. Approximately 15-20 young people stood up.

Phil Jackson wrote down all of the suggestion and will be working with the senator to coordinate some type of follow-up from this effort. Jackson stated we need more parents and more mentors, and we need to get the police and young people respecting each other.