OPINION – With all the news about Black students being suspended, you might get the impression that there is something inherent in our kids keeping them on the naughty list. But, as a school principal, I know first-hand that’s not true.

My biggest leverage with my students (90 percent of whom are African American) is not the threat of suspension if they misbehave. It’s the acknowledgment of being on Honor Roll if they excel. What I have found to be inherent in our children is something that endures in us as adults: we all want recognition for a job well done.

When it comes to pursuing perfect attendance, working hard to make the grade, or wanting praise for doing the right thing, there are no stakeholders more eager than our children themselves. I find that the higher expectations we have as educators and parents, the more students want to achieve.

This year, I raised the standard for Honor Roll at my school requiring 80 percent or better in English, Math, Science and History; no disciplinary referrals; a community service project; and no more than three absences in a term. In the past, we only counted English and Math grades and turned a blind-eye to disciplinary referrals and attendance. Honor Roll had become the “everybody gets a ribbon” club. Some teachers were afraid that parents who had grown accustomed to having their children on Honor Roll under the old rules would be upset if their kids didn’t make it.

Sometimes we underestimate parents. For sure, some complained, but others were more insightful. One mother whose daughter didn’t make Honor Roll due to poor attendance took personal responsibility. She said, “That’s my fault. My daughter can’t drive herself to school. That’s my job and from now on, I’ll do it.”
Giving a ribbon to every child whether or not they’ve earned it may pacify parents in the short term but in the long run, it promotes mediocrity in children.

I have never met a more competitive group of people than African Americans. The results of my Honor Roll challenge only affirm my belief. The first term, 33 percent of students made Honor Roll and the achievement became a meaningful goal for kids. Now, in the second term, 50 percent of students earned a spot on the list and the parents are planning a celebration.

I firmly believe our children have a place on the top of every school Honor Roll list in Sacramento and they can get there the old fashioned way — by earning it.
By Margaret Fortune

Margaret Fortune is the President and CEO of Fortune School of Education. The organization launched a network of public charter schools located in Sacramento and San Bernardino counties. The K-12 school system is focused on closing the African American achievement gap, preparing scholars for college starting in Kindergarten. The network currently includes three K-8 campuses with combined enrollment of 900 students, and has approval to open seven more schools. Ms. Fortune also operates a graduate school of education, credentialing teachers and school administrators with a focus on charter school leadership. For more information, visit http://www.fortuneschool.org/