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Raspberry gives back to children

At the reunion of his Okolona, Miss., junior college in 2001, William Raspberry, professor of the practice of communications and journalism in his ninth year at Duke, stood up and spoke to the peers he had not sat in a classroom with since 1952.

The mood was nostalgic, as might be expected at a reunion, and there were abundant stories of how the school--the only one that offered 11th and 12th grade to black students at the time--had made a difference in people's lives.

Then it dawned on Raspberry: Why not move past the nostalgia and make a difference in the lives of future Okolona children, as his teachers had once done for him?

What spawned from Raspberry's revelation was an initiative to make Okolona's children the smartest in northeastern Mississippi by stepping away from school education and instead teaching parents how to prepare their children for success in life.

"I'm trying to pay interest on the investment people made a long way back," Raspberry, also a Washington Post columnist, said.

This "interest" includes not only the time and effort Raspberry has put into the initiative, but also funding a salary for some of his facilitators and covering costs of transportation and lodging for experts. The money, thus far, has come completely out of his own pocket, because he says it is not ethical for journalists to fundraise, but said he is prepared to give up his position at the Post to devote more time to fundraising and expanding the initiative.

The town of Okolona, with a population of about 3,500, is "one of a thousand southern towns where the jobs have disappeared... as factories have gone overseas," he said. The town also has few natural assets and the school system has been declining, he added.

Raspberry felt it was logical to start with children, who had their whole lives ahead of them for potential success. If children need strong and smart families, he speculated, "then for families to do well, they need strong and smart communities."

Raspberry noted that the main goal of the initiative was to "try to persuade parents that they're the most important teacher their child will ever have." Parents, he said, learned from their own parents. If they were not taught well, then their children suffer, and the chain goes on.

"These parents love their children as much as any of us," he said. "[But, they] express their love by dressing them 'cute,' buying them toys, when there are other things they can do," Raspberry said.

In an Aug. 25 column, Raspberry related the findings from Betty Hart and Todd Risley's book, "Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young Children." What the authors found and Raspberry followed in his initiative was that "verbal stimulation (roughly the number of words a young child hears at home) may be the most important predictor of the child's future academic, economic and social success."

In August, Raspberry started by instructing a few dozen parents how to effectively teach their children. Because he travels between Durham and Washington and cannot be in Okolona often, these newly educated parents and a few other facilitators in turn pay visits to other parents at home or hold group meetings.

At these meetings, they brainstorm methods to teach important values, like patience, or work on how to better interact with kids on a daily basis.

Raspberry said he is surprised and pleased with the reception of the initiative in the community, and hopes the initial reactions will serve to push the project beyond the current scope of children under the age of five.

"I'm committed to making this happen," Raspberry said. "The whole community is committed... and my job is to just keep that commitment alive."


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