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For Easter, it's sermon on schools Pridgen cites May dates to mobilize for reforms

The Rev. Darius G. Pridgen on Sunday was just as invested in talking about raising graduation rates among students in the Buffalo Public Schools as he was the Resurrection of Jesus during his annual Easter service in Kleinhans Music Hall.

The Common Council member and former School Board member encouraged about 3,000 people to attend a May 3 meeting with state and local officials and -- if that doesn't produce results -- join a boycott of schools that advocates have planned for May 16.

"I am a firm believer that there is a spirit of mediocrity in this area. I believe that it's time for us to do better. I'm talking about much better," Pridgen exhorted members of the overflow crowd, some of whom had to watch on television monitors from side rooms.

Pridgen, pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church, was joined by Samuel L. Radford III, vice president of a parent group that called for the May 3 meeting in the Stanley M. Makowski Early Childhood Center, 1095 Jefferson Ave.

If officials are unresponsive to parents' concerns at that meeting, both Pridgen -- who represents the Ellicott District on the Council -- and Radford warned that protests will follow May 16, including an effort to encourage parents to keep their children home from school as a way to draw attention to the need for structural reform of city schools and achieve better academic results.

"The black male [drop-out] rate for the last 40 years in the City of Buffalo has been 75 percent," said Radford, who also acknowledged criticism by some that his group's call to keep students from school for half a day would hurt them academically.

Pridgen retorted: "They've been hurting children for 40 years. I don't think [missing] a half-day of school is going to hurt them any worse. We've got to get our education system in order."

The pastor, through his church, also pledged a $1,000 donation to help Radford's group, the District Parent Coordinating Council, publicize the May 3 meeting and May 16 protest.

"May 16 is going to be a day of prayer, protest and change," Radford said.

In addition, Radford said, he will be encouraging local churches to provide sanctuary for students if a boycott is held May 16.

"Just like you do Sunday school, we're looking to do some Monday school," Radford said. "We're asking the churches and the church community to open the doors for our children."

Pridgen, meanwhile, traced a host of problems besetting large sections of the African-American community to what he described as the failure of the Buffalo Public Schools to properly educate the city's children. He noted that "[the reason] 70 percent of you sisters are single right now is because 30 percent of the prison population is made is up of [black males]."

However, both Pridgen and Radford aimed to make it clear that the African-American community also bears some responsibility for its plight.

Pridgen urged parents to take a more proactive role in their children's education by joining their Parent-Teacher Associations, personally picking up their children's report cards and ensuring that they develop good study habits.

"For every teacher out there, here's what we're saying: We're saying you need help," Pridgen said.

Still, Radford said, the district has to become more responsive to the needs of its students.

"Our superintendent already said the system is [broken]," Radford said, and "the way it is right now, if we continue doing this way, we're going to get the same results."

In recent weeks, School Superintendent James A. Williams has been losing the confidence of a growing number of stakeholders in the district, including parents, teachers and School Board members who complain that the district has consistently botched its plans for the city's failing schools.

However, some who attended Sunday's Easter service at Kleinhans vowed to step up their own involvement in their children's education. Tamara Smith, a young mother of a 2-year-old son and a daughter who attends preschool, said she was stirred by the messages from Pridgen and Radford.

"The thought of my child not getting the proper education is scary to me. I want to be as dedicated as possible to my child," Smith said, while cradling her sleeping son, Zion.

Smith said she plans to attend the May 3 meeting at Makowski Early Childhood Center as a way to assert her involvement in the cause but acknowledged the burdens on some parents to maintain that focus.

"I think a lot of these parents aren't educated themselves," Smith said. "As [Radford] said, 75 percent of the males never even graduate. Most of these kids don't have fathers.

"So the mothers are working as hard as they can. They want to make sure that their kids are going to school, but they're working double shifts every day. I'm one of them."

e-mail: hmcneil@buffnews.com

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