When you come from rural Mississippi and – by your own description – "wiggle my way to the White House" to become the first African American to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education, there might be a tendency to think you've done enough.
No so with Dr. Rod Paige, the seventh Department of Education secretary in U.S. history, and the keynote speaker last Sunday (April 20) at the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Beta Epsilon Chapter's Second Annual Educational Advancement Foundation Scholarship Breakfast.
The early morning event, held with the support of Dr. Lester Baskins and Middle Baptist Church, 801 Whitehaven Lane, was designed to continue the sorority's legacy of scholarship and service. The theme was "Awesome Support for Education: The AKA Way." Dr. Paige was invited to offer his perspective on the importance of education in today's economy.
And, in his own way, he did.
While not dismissing his accomplishments, or those of myriad others, Paige declared that not enough had been done "when I see too many African Americans in jail (and) the drop-out rates of kids too high across the United States."
It's not enough, he said, "when I see myself and my colleagues excelling and the kids with their pants below their butt. It's not enough. We need to get that (the problems) fixed and we're the only ones that can fix it."
The Educational Advancement Foundation has granted $2.5 million in awards since 1932 and Paige noted what he readily acknowledged as "awesome support." Still, "we need more," he said.
"The question is what can we do? Number one, it takes leadership. Someone needs to feel in charge of the process. Decide how we're now working, ain't working," Paige said. "We cannot hand off the responsibility of educating our kids to the schools. That's a big problem.
"The schools are not the responsible ones," he said. "The schools can and must help, but it's not solely their responsibility to educate our children. No one's accepting responsibility."
In an interview with The New Tri-State Defender, Dr. Paige was asked two questions: Was he familiar with the issues surrounding merging the Memphis and Shelby County School Districts? And what advice might he give parents as they prepare for the school merger?
"I have followed what has been in the press. My advice would be general," Dr. Paige said.
"My advice for parents and citizens is not to sit in default, and not to allow this important conversation to take place without them participating in it. If it requires voting, then there should be massive turnouts to acknowledge your views on the matter," he said. "Parents default by not being active participants in the discussion."
Organizations should take a leadership role by taking a position "in a partisan way," he continued.
"Organizations should take the leadership by becoming active participants in helping citizens to understand the problems and the issues. They should explain the issues to parents and make sure they know what's going on; why and how it will affect them and their children.
"Leaders should speak to two groups – have a message to the children and a message to the systems. The message to the children is for them to work hard, stay in school, and that they can succeed," he said.
"The message to the systems is that we're here to help see to it that the systems are fair to the students, that they are working on behalf of the students and we will assist on that and other important issues."
Roots of commitment
Born and raised in rural, segregated Monticello, Miss., Paige is the oldest of four siblings, one of which is Dr. Raygene Paige, who chaired the Educational Advancement Foundation's annual event. Their father was a principal and their mother a librarian. None of the siblings had a choice about whether they were going to college, he said.
"I recall being asked by an elementary school student; 'Why did you decide to go to college?' The reason I decided to go to college is because I enjoyed breathing," he said. "We need to get back to making decisions for our children and get back there fast."
There is no other way to "advance us quicker to a place, other than education," he said. "Our problem is we've let the children be the adult."
Following his parents' example, Paige harvested an impressive educational career. He began working with students early in his profession as a teacher and a coach. Later, he was elected as a trustee and officer of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) Board of Education.
For 10 years, Paige served as Dean of the College of Education at Texas Southern University. He left to become superintendent of HISD, the nation's seventh largest school district, where he served for eight years. During this tenure, he was named National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators.
Since leaving the White House staff, Dr. Paige has served on the boards of numerous foundations, corporations, and non-profit organizations, working to advance education in the United States and around the world.
Two schools are named in his honor. The Monticello (Mississippi) Middle School was renamed the Rod Paige Middle School, and in Houston the James Bowie Elementary School is now Rod Paige Elementary School.