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Kwanzaa speaker points to education; The first step to helping minority students succeed is getting them to school, Hill says

More than 200 people who attended a Kwanzaa event Tuesday in the African American Cultural Center were urged to assume responsibility for helping to increase graduation rates among African-American students in the Buffalo Public Schools.

Kwanzaa is a weeklong holiday observance honoring African culture and traditions that was started by former University of California, Long Beach, Professor Maulana Karenga in 1966.

Each day of the celebration focuses on one of six guiding principles.

While Tuesday's program was supposed to focus on kujichagulia, which is Swahili for self-determination, it was perhaps fitting that the scheduled speaker, Ujima Theater Co. founder Lorna C. Hill, addressed the third day's principle, ujima, or collective work and responsibility, instead.

"You may be aware that in the last week or so, they rolled out this 'Say Yes [to Education]' program. Isn't that exciting?" said Hill, who, for the past four years has been a teacher in the Buffalo Public Schools.

"Every child who graduates from a Buffalo Public School and is accepted to a college in the [City University of New York] or [State University of New York] system will be provided full tuition," she added.

Hill said that, while the program "sounds like a tremendous opportunity for the African-American and Latino communities," it would be for naught if large percentages of students from those communities don't graduate.

"That's step one to using this money. They first have to graduate, and step one to graduating, however, is coming to school," Hill said.

"If they don't graduate, this will become meaningless," she added.

Hill said teachers bear a great responsibility for educating these students, but they can't if parents and others in the community don't see to it the students get to the classrooms.

"I've got [students] that it's so evident the situations they've got to climb out of just to get on the bus.

"So let's just take a second to look at those kids. You know who they are, too. We all have to participate in getting those children on the bus," said Hill.

"The children in the poverty culture need all of us. I know it's old and maybe it sounds trite, maybe it's too cliche to say to you it takes a village, but it absolutely does. We're going to have to get everybody mobilized if we're going to get these kids to graduation.

"It's more than a notion. I believe this is a program that can benefit our community. It could change a generation," she added.

Tonight's Kwanzaa program is scheduled to take place at 7 p.m. in the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library, 1324 Jefferson Ave.