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National Education Leader To Speak on Closing the Achievement Gap, March 30

February 27, 2013

Growing up as an African-American child in a racially segregated Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III marched in the historic Children’s Crusade during the Civil Rights Movement, and learned firsthand the power that even children have to make a difference in their future and to help those around them.

Fast forward 50 years. Dr. Hrabowski, now president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), uses this same philosophy of commitment and support of others to help students excel academically, particularly in STEM fields where women and minorities are underrepresented.

Through its nationally acclaimed Meyerhoff Scholars program, which Dr. Hrabowski co-founded in 1988, 41 percent of UMBC's 2010 graduates received degrees in science and engineering fields, well above the national average of 25 percent.

Dr. Hrabowski will be at Simmons, Saturday, March 30, from 10 a.m. – noon and 1 p.m. – 3 p.m. for the Simmons College and Beacon Press 2013 Race, Education, and Democracy book and lecture series, to discuss his efforts to eliminate the race achievement gap in education.

We asked Dr. Hrabowski, who was featured on the CBS show “60 Minutes”  and named one of the Top 100 most influential people in the world by TIME Magazine, about his work, including what educators can do to help their own students excel, and what President Obama wants him to do as chair of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

SC: The overall theme of the Race, Education, and Democracy lecture series is “Standing Up for Justice/Creating Opportunity: From the Birmingham Children’s Crusade to the Education of Achievers in Science and Technology.” What can we expect from the talks?

FH: This first lecture will focus on the combination of my experience and my own education, including what I learned from the Children’s March as a child. It is the 50th anniversary of the march and it’s also the 50th anniversary of the founding of my university. During that time in history, we could finally attract and recruit students from all backgrounds. It has been a 50-year experiment focused on the fact that students of all backgrounds, from this country and beyond, can succeed.

Our struggle and journey reflect the American higher education story. It has only been within the past 60 years that people of all races can attend all institutions, and we are trying to figure out how to combine excellence and diversity.

My college reflects academic innovations and excellence in achievement in an area where many Americans don’t succeed: science and engineering. How can we increase the number of Americans who can excel in STEM fields?

It means thinking through what we want for those students. What does it mean to have exceptional standards, and what does it mean to have support? It all comes from my own experience.

SC: There is a feeling that excellence and inclusiveness cannot coexist. However, your successful Meyerhoff program at UMBC has proved that wrong. What can individual members of the Boston education community do to support the goal of achieving excellence and inclusiveness among their own student populations and eliminate the achievement gap?

FH: Looking at best practices is very important. At UMBC, there’s a balance between being nurturing and understanding, but also setting very high standards… I’m also a strong believer that the traditional method of lecturing is not going to work for most students. Many students are bored in class. We need to think through other approaches that will give students a chance to work with each other and teach each other. People also do well when you give them a sense of self. Some adult has to say to a student, “You can do this.”… Also, nothing is more important than creating an environment in which it’s cool to be smart. How do we help kids to want to be smart? To me, smart means you want to work hard.

SC: President Obama recently appointed you chair of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. What do you hope to accomplish in this role?

FH: The executive order is focused on identifying strategies that support young African-American students, from pre-k through to the work force. We need to build synergy. We have to find the ways we are using funding that increase the number of students who excel academically. I am hopeful that what we learn is helpful to Americans of all types.

There are basic principles that hold true for all: the importance of community, high standards, giving support, the opportunity to experience success, and more understanding about what hard work means.

SC: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

FH: The importance of passion; it’s one thing to be an analytical person, but those who analyze must develop a passion for what they do. Nothing gives me more goose bumps than to see a student thinking carefully about her future, or another student thinking about getting a Ph.D. People who appreciate the value of education are passionate about the work of helping young people.

At the same time, one of the critical strategies has been analytics. What is the trend? It is crucial to determine what is working and what is not. Analytics are looking at the data to determine who is succeeding, and what strategies we are using. We must use this information and reflect on the experience to figure out what really works.

The Race, Education and Democracy Lecture and Book Series, a collaborative effort of Simmons College and Beacon Press, will bring a prominent scholar to Boston on an annual basis, who will deliver three public lectures on the topic of race, education and democracy. Managed by Simmons's Education and Africana Studies Professor Theresa Perry, these lectures will form the basis for a book, published by Beacon Press. The 2013 Lectures are co-sponsored by the Boston Public School System and the Cambridge Public School System.

The lectures are free and open to the public. For more information and to register, visit or call 617-521-2257.