BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Hugh B. Price, author of "Achievement Matters," what`s the title all about?
HUGH B. PRICE (Author, "Achievement Matters"): The title is part of our effort in the National Urban League to spread the gospel of achievement, to make sure our children and our parents understand that academic achievement is more important today than ever before.
LAMB: What do you mean, "achievement matters"?
PRICE: It means that you`ve got to do well in school in order to do well in life, and you`ve got to do well in school in order to become a 21st century citizen. You`ve got to understand reading -- I mean, toward the end of the book, I sort of laid out some of the proficiencies that have stood me in good stead over my lifetime: literacy, reading, curiosity, critical thinking, some understanding of numeracy, some understanding of the scientific method. All of these are things that are summoned up in various kinds of jobs that people will hold. They`re summoned up if you`re going to run a business, and certainly, if you`re going to be a citizen in the 21st century. And all of those are the kinds of skills that are cultivated in formal education and reinforced through the home.
LAMB: Before we go any farther, this is for the Urban League, but you`re leaving.
PRICE: Well, it`s for parents and caregivers who are raising children.
LAMB: But I mean, where are you going? Why are you going?
PRICE: I`m leaving for a couple of reasons. First, by the time I leave next April, it will have been nine years, and I think that`s a good, long run by any standard. And I believe very strongly in passing the baton of leadership while you still have your wind and before you start to stumble and passing along a strong organization.
Secondly, I`m going to recalibrate the balance in my own professional and personal life. This year, I will have been on the road parts of 38 weeks and 19 weekends. It was like that last year and the year before that, and as I look ahead, it will be the same. And I want a different balance.
And thirdly, as I am now 61, I feel that I`ve got one more major professional challenge in me, and there are probably more options at this age than there might be four or five years hence.
LAMB: Where`s home originally?
PRICE: I grew up in Washington, D.C. I`m a product of a wonderful family in Washington. I was born in Freedman`s Hospital in D.C., right on the campus of Howard University. I grew up in a home about five or six blocks from Howard University, which was the center of my universe when I was a youngster. I went through the public schools. I was one of the first contingent of black students to integrate the Washington, D.C., public schools in the aftermath of the Brown versus Board of Education decision in 1954. And I had lived here up until 1959, when I went off to college, and I sort of never experienced the renaissance that Washington felt once the Kennedys arrived. Washington was a sleepy town down South when I was a kid.
LAMB: Your parents did what?
PRICE: My father was a physician. He was the second African-American who was board-certified in urology, and he had a solo practice. And he also tithed with his time by working for free at the clinics at Howard University -- at Freedman`s Hospital. My mother was an activist. She was a vice president of the Americans for Democratic Action back in the early `50s. She was very involved in bringing the vote to Washington, D.C.
So it was very funny. My father was a traditionalist who didn`t believe that wives should work, if at all possible. So she didn`t work, she just volunteered 50 to 60 hours a week, and she got him back that way! But she was very, very active.
And we lived in a wonderful neighborhood in Washington. My neighbors were people like Charles Houston, who was the founder of the Legal Defense Fund, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the great crusading black sports reporters like Sam Lacy, who wrote for "The African-American" and really pushed baseball to integrate. So it was a glorious upbringing, and I felt very fortunate.
LAMB: Now, you have how many brothers and sisters?
PRICE: I have one brother, who`s a physician in Columbia, Maryland, and he`s a terrific doctor and is my mentor and role model.
PRICE: I have no sisters, just one sibling.
LAMB: And you went to law school where?
PRICE: I went to Yale Law School, got out in 1966.
LAMB: Don`t I remember you were, like, 10th out of 500-something in your high school class?
PRICE: Well, yes, 10 out of -- number 10 out of about 700 in the high school class. I went to college at Amherst in Massachusetts and then went straight on to law school.
LAMB: So how did your family do so well?
PRICE: Just a lot of drive and determination. I mean, my father`s father was a farmer who died when my dad was only 3 years old, and he ended up actually growing up with his first cousin, Frank Jones, who was the first African-American who was board-certified in urology in this country. My dad was a bit of a loner, but he had a tremendous amount of drive to succeed.
My mother grew up in West Haven, Connecticut, and was the youngest of 10 children. She also was very active. She started at Howard University, where they met, and she stayed there for about a year, and then she went back to West Haven, to work in New Haven during her young adulthood. Then after both my brother and I were born, my mother went back to college at Howard to get her BA degree in the 1940s. And she studied under Ralph Bunche and John Hope Franklin and all of those luminaries. So I think a good deal of my activism was in the chromosomes.
LAMB: What did they do with you? I mean, what kind of things did they do with Hugh Price when he was young that got you all through the law school thing and all the jobs you`ve had?
PRICE: Well, they were just there to support me throughout. I`ll never forget, if I did something good in school, particularly at, say, B.K. Bruce Elementary School, and there was an awards assembly or a graduation assembly, even though my father had a grueling medical practice -- he would head out of the door in the morning at 6:30 or 7:00 o`clock to go to surgery and he often didn`t get home till 9:00 o`clock at night -- if there was an event at school, he was always there.
And my dad was a very reserved man, but I always knew that when it came time for me to get an award and go across the stage, there`d be this loud whoop of joy out in the audience. And I could look out and I could find him because that was him. So he was very effervescent about our success. My mother was there sort of rock-steady, inspiring us and supporting my brother and me. And they sort of set an example.
And the other thing is that growing up in the segregated Washington, D.C., in the orbit of Howard University and in the orbit of so many extraordinarily successful people, I grew up feeling that I could accomplish most anything and that if there were obstacles, they were externally imposed obstacles, that there was segregation out there, it was somebody else`s problem. I had to overcome it by tunneling under it, blasting through it or climbing over top of it or going around it, but it was not a limitation, an internally imposed limitation on my possibilities, it was externally imposed. And that was the way many of us felt, and that was the confidence that the Howard experience instilled in young African-Americans and in African-American families.
LAMB: Why did you go to Amherst?
PRICE: Well, it`s interesting. I was fortunate enough to get into a number of terrific schools. One of them was Harvard. I remember going up to visit Harvard in the early spring of my senior year. And the weather was kind of bleak and the place looked kind of big, and I said, Gee, this is a little off-putting. And I went down to Amherst, and the caliber of education was the same. I had never played organized sports, to speak of, because high school basketball and baseball were so good here. And I figured I might have a chance to make the basketball team at Amherst. And I actually did. I beat out a guy who was 6 feet, 10, for the position of center on our freshman team, who couldn`t even dunk. That`s how long ago this was.
But I figured I`d get a world-class education in a small environment where I could do many, many more things. And also, it`s in a magnificent rural, sylvan setting, and I thought, Well, I probably will never live like this again, in a setting like this, so let me just take four years out and be in this very special place.
LAMB: What are the main jobs you`ve had in your life?
PRICE: Well, I`ve had eight. I started out as a legal services lawyer. I was a community activist, running a group called the Black Coalition of New Haven. I was an urban affairs consultant and also a city administrator. That was up through 1978. Then we moved to New York and I became an editorial writer with "The New York Times." That was like being on the faculty of a great university, just an incomparable experience.
Then I went into public television, where I was with channel 13 in New York, which is the largest public television station. And I supervised -- I ran the division that produces all the great series like "Great Performances" and "Nature" and "American Masters." Then moved on to the Rockefeller Foundation as vice president, where I was in charge of grant-making in education and equal opportunity.
We were able to initiate a number of wonderful things there, like the National Commission on Teaching and America`s Future and what came to be known as the National Guard Youth Challenge Corps. And then I moved on to the National Urban League. So I have a little bit of a history of trying different things and seeing whether I can succeed at them.
The National Urban League is the longest stint I`ve had. I mean, up until this stretch, which will last nine years, I had never been anyplace more than six years.
LAMB: Where`d you meet your wife?
PRICE: It`s interesting. Our families were very, very close. My wife`s aunt was my 6th grade teacher, and her uncle was my sponsor and mentor for Amherst College, a distinguished graduate of Amherst by the name of Dr. Montague Cobb. My father had operated on my wife`s grandfather or grandmother. But we didn`t meet until college, when I was at Amherst and she was at Mount Holyoke. And we dated a bit my first year. She was a year ahead of me, although we`re the same age. And then she went off to junior year abroad, and we didn`t really date. And then once she got back, we started seeing each other again, and the romance was ignited and we got married in 1963. So we`re coming up on 39 years of marriage.
LAMB: Has she had a profession?
PRICE: Yes. She`s worked with a world-class organization called the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, which is the premier organization that does social science experiments -- for example, running job training programs and education programs and then submitting the results to rigorous analysis. She`s been with them since about 1979, so she`s had a great, great career with them.
LAMB: Three daughters.
LAMB: How old are they today?
PRICE: Well, they`re all turning over this fall. One will be 31, one will be 33 and the other will be 38.
LAMB: And what have they done?
PRICE: Well, it`s interesting. Our youngest daughter, Lauren, is a development associate with the New Victory Theater complex up in New York. It`s a great, great institution, and she`s learning a lot and enjoying it. Our middle daughter, like me, lasted in the law about two years, and she has reinvented herself as a public radio producer. So she`s a producer on a show called "On the Media" that`s national syndicated over NPR. And her name is Janeen. And our eldest daughter, Traer, is a choreographer of water fountains. If you were to go to the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas and see those magnificent water displays out there, she choreographed several of those numbers. And she`s also choreographed some of the "Splashtacular" numbers out in front of the geodesic dome at Epcot Center and she`s married, and her husband is a set designer and writer.
LAMB: So what did you do with those three girls in your family that ends up in this book?
PRICE: Well, there are a number of stories from their life experience. That`s interesting. For example, one of the main points of the book is that you should start to read to your children from a very early stage, even before they can read to you. As I was describing that point to my eldest daughter, that it was going to be in the book, a bemused look came over her face and she said, I still remember to this day how you and Mom used to park yourselves on my pillow at night, when I was this big, and read to me every night. And so I grew up knowing that this thing called reading must -- should become important to me, if it was that important to you.
In the book, we talk about the importance of keeping a close eye on how much technology kids watch because children who watch three and four hours of television a night tend not to read nearly as well as kids who only watch an hour or less. And I thought back to my own experience and how my wife had an iron-clad rule that our children could not watch more than an hour of television a day. They would take their best shot. But that was it.
And to further deepen the -- sort of the anecdotal part of the book, I recounted how when we were living in New Haven, Connecticut, in a kind of inner-city neighborhood and our house kept getting broken into and our TVs were stolen, I went out and bought a used floor-model TV, figuring that nobody would steal that or else they`d get a hernia. But it would invariably break. And we decided not to replace it because we were afraid it might get stolen.
And we found that within a couple of days, our children were fine. They were reading more, playing more games, interacting more with us and with themselves. And our household would be without a television for months and months and months on end. And frankly, it was me who wanted to watch the NBA play-offs that always would break down and go out and buy a TV set. But I learned a basic lesson there about the importance of containing the amount of television that children watch because all sorts of other opportunities and interests blossom as a result of that.
LAMB: You say in your book that black kids watch, what, an hour or more television a day than white kids.
PRICE: Yes, they`re -- I mean, just the patterns of television -- what`s happened is that a lot of parents are working extraordinarily hard and don`t have a whole lot of back-up resources sort of back into using television as an electronic baby-sitter. And it`s easy to understand how that can happen. It`s easy to understand how much of a struggle it is to sort of wrestle with your children over how much they watch. But it`s critically important to curb the amount of TV they watch and to make sure that they read for fun, play games and are involved in stimulating activities.
LAMB: Well, why black kids more than white kids?
PRICE: I think there are just maybe more single-parent households in our community, so there are fewer parents around to keep an eye on the situation and to monitor it.
LAMB: How do you get around that?
PRICE: Well, I think we`ve got to -- share the message that there are other ways in which youngsters can function and can engage themselves. And one of the points of saying we went for months on end without a TV is that, you know, the children really do survive quite well without it, just as they survived before television was ever invented. And we ought to do that. And even if you have to pull the plug, even if you have to break the television, don`t let them become addicted to it.
LAMB: The Urban League is what?
PRICE: The Urban League is the oldest and largest community-based movement empowering African-Americans to enter the economic and social mainstream. We were founded in 1910. That`s essentially been what we`ve been about our entire history. And the heart of Urban League movement is our more than 100 professionally-staffed affiliates all over the United States.
LAMB: How many people work for the Urban League?
PRICE: You know, I wish I had that number, but the typical affiliate -- we have about 120 at the National Urban League office, and I`d say a typical robust affiliate probably has 50 to 100 people working for it. Some of our smaller ones might have staffs of five or six.
LAMB: How much does the national organization spend a year?
PRICE: Our budget`s about $42 million a year. Roughly a fourth of that is general operating support, and the balance is grants.
LAMB: And do the individual groups around the country have to raise their own money?
PRICE: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Yes, they`re very robust, and it makes our movement a very interesting one because we provide leadership at the national level, but we don`t have a command-and-control environment. We have what I call a "cajole environment," and we try to get everybody on the page around a certain number of things. But they also have to be very responsive to local imperatives and local needs. And increasingly, with the decentralization of federal funding, they`ve had a much greater burden of raising resources on their own.
LAMB: Where does your money come from?
PRICE: A variety of sources. We get some government grants. We get quite a few foundation grants. We have major strategic partnerships with corporations. We have fund-raising events, like our annual dinners. And we`re increasingly getting into the direct-mail, individual-giving realm.
LAMB: Of all the things you do, what`s your personal favorite program you think is the most important thing that the Urban League does?
PRICE: Well, I`ve been obsessed with our whole campaign for African-American achievement because I think that ensuring that our children do well academically and become enthusiastic lifetime learners is hugely important to their long-term success as providers and as citizens of the United States and of the world. So we`ve moved beyond thinking just about a direct service -- you know, what kind of program can we operate -- into a broad community mobilization modality, where we are spreading the gospel of academic achievement through PSAs on urban radio, where we`ve teamed up with "Scholastic" magazine to create a guide called "Read and Rise." We`ve already -- for parents, specific things they can do. And we`ve already gotten grants to print up 1.75 million copies of that guide.
We have created a National Achievers Society. It`s a community-based honor society for kids who are doing well in school and earning B averages or better in school. We`ve inducted more than 25,000 children into that program since it got started. And in some places -- for example, a year-and-a-half ago, I was out at the San Diego Urban League, and we were at Bayview Baptist Church on a Saturday afternoon in June. We inducted 350 youngsters, black youngsters, all of whom had B averages or better and half of whom were boys. That was a thrilling sight to behold. And there were 800 parents in the church. The church was so full that parents were sitting in the pews reserved for the choir. So we had 1,100 people out on a Saturday afternoon for about two-and-a-half hours to celebrate achievement. That just brings goose -- you know, makes your skin just -- it`s just so exciting, I can`t even describe it. It`s just a thrilling sight.
And that`s happening all over the country. So I think we`ve helped transform children`s attitudes toward academic achievement and to transform parents` attitudes. And the whole point of the book was to provide these kinds of inspiring stories and specific kinds of tips that parents can use to help their children become proficient readers and high achievers. And that, I think, is a signature accomplishment that`s happened on my watch.
LAMB: Who was it that created the program where a youngster, if they read 50 books a year or something like that, could get a free bicycle?
PRICE: Right. That was Ronald Ross, who was the superintendent of schools in Mount Vernon, New York, just outside New York City. Ron came into the school system in Mount Vernon in the late 1990s. Thirty-three percent of the youngsters in the schools were passing the New York state exam in the 4th grade. By the time he left earlier this year, seventy-nine percent of the kids were passing. It was an extraordinary exponential growth in reading proficiency that he orchestrated.
I`m delighted to say Ron is now a distinguished fellow with the National Urban League, and we`re providing him with a national platform to spread his knowledge and his inspiring stories to school districts all over the country.
LAMB: Somewhere over the years, I`ve read a statistic that 70 percent of the black births are out of wedlock. Is that accurate?
PRICE: It`s been that high. What`s very encouraging now is the fact that the out-of-wedlock birthrate among black teenagers is at a 40-year low. So the trends are reversing themselves, and we are really, really pleased with that because I think our youngsters are beginning to absorb the message that if you have a baby when you`re a teenager and you don`t have your own high school degree and you`re not married, then the overwhelming odds are that your child will spend some time of her or his life in poverty. But if you wait until after you`re married, until after you have gotten your high school diploma and after age 21, the odds are that your children will never be poor. And I think our kids are beginning to absorb that message, and that`s very important.
LAMB: What`s causing the low after all these 40 years?
PRICE: Well, I suspect several things. I think that probably Welfare reform has made it very clear to kids that there won`t be a lifetime on Welfare if you have a child. I think that, at least in the latter part of the `90s, the strong economy was pulling youngsters into the workforce. I think our message that achievement matters has made a big difference. And frankly, I suspect that fear of sexually transmitted diseases, especially potentially fatal ones like AIDS, has had a sobering impact on kids.
LAMB: When President Clinton signed the bill to change Welfare reform, what was your position on that?
PRICE: We were very disturbed by it. We believe very strongly that people should work and everyone who possibly can should work, but we`re worried about the inflexibility of the five-year time limits because there could come a time -- and we`re actually in it now -- where there`s what might be called a "perfect economic storm," a lull in the economy, a recession which has strapped states so that they barely have money to provide extended unemployment benefits, and rigid Welfare time limits.
Now, I`m very worried that a lot of families are being pushed back onto Welfare, and if they hit those time limits and the unemployment benefits have run out, then where are they going to be? You know, there`s a surge in homelessness we`re seeing around the country. I think it`s got something to do with that. We`re seeing a surge in the patronage of food pantries. I think it`s got something to do with that. We don`t see a lot of data about this, and politicians don`t want to talk about it, but we are in a situation now with the combination of time limits, financially strapped states and a sluggish labor market that makes the rigidity of Welfare reform really frightening. And that was our worry all along, and I think we`re now seeing that can actually come to pass.
LAMB: Did you suggest in your book that one of the things that came out of Welfare reform was that kids were home in the afternoon, with the mothers working now, and they weren`t getting care?
PRICE: No, I mean, that`s been a pattern all along. Whether people are on Welfare or not, the fact is that a lot of folks are out of the home. That`s true in all families. And so after-school programs for youngsters of all ages are critically important. And I think we need to look at running schools much longer than we do. Wouldn`t bother me if they opened up at 7:30 in the morning and went till 6:00 o`clock in the evening. I mean, that`s what prep schools do. That`s what a lot of private schools do.
We know from research that after-school youth development programs help to promote academic achievement and curb mischievous behavior and criminal activity and curb out-of-wedlock teen sex. So given how effective after-school programs are, they should be part of the everyday life of youngsters.
LAMB: Have you studied -- another issue -- because you talk about black men in here. Start with -- 3rd grade seems to be -- big changes...
PRICE: It`s a very mysterious phenomenon, the 3rd grade. I don`t fully understand it. I`m not an educator. But I know that we`ve got to keep an eye on it, and that is that a lot of youngsters, particularly black males, start off on a pretty good path in school, but around the 3rd or 4th grade, they start to slip on us, slide back. And if you`re not careful, you can look up in a year or two and find the children are way, way behind, and then you`ve got a lot of heavy-duty catching up to do.
So the point of the book is that parents should watch this phenomenon like a hawk. And they need to be in close contact with the teachers and making sure that teachers tell them if there`s any sign of slippage. They need to be monitoring report cards, going to the "meet the teacher" nights and just staying on that very, very closely because if you can get your youngster through that period, chances are they`ll stay pretty much on course the rest of the way.
And it`s one of the major points in the book, and it`s why parent engagement is so critically important. A lot of parents have said to me when I was on the book tour, Well, you know, I`ve got to deal with food, clothing and shelter. Why can`t I just trust the teachers? Why can`t I just trust the schools? And the reason is that sometimes there`s slippage and the schools aren`t letting you know that. Secondly, even if they are letting you know that, you`ve got to be locked in and really monitoring the situation very, very closely. And thirdly, sometimes the educators make judgments about your kids that really are not appropriate. They may want to refer your child to special education when, if you got a second opinion, you`d find that that`s really not necessary. Or they may misread the potential of a youngster.
I mean, I had that happen to me when I was growing up here in Washington, D.C., when I was at Coolidge High School, during the summer between my junior and senior years, I was fortunate to be chosen for a program for students who are very strong in math and science. And that summer, when we were working in that job, we were given a test to help assess our future potential. I will never in life forget being called in for the results and being told at age 16, even though I was ranked number 10 in my high school class of 700, that I probably would get to go to college but that I should never count on going to graduate school or professional school.
Now, my parents -- bless them -- when I ran home and told them that`s what I`d been told, they said, Don`t pay any attention to it. We`re going to keep on it. That`s one of the reasons my parents were so fantastic because they had a sense of what my possibilities were, and they stuck with me.
But can you imagine if a child didn`t tell a parent that or if a parent just sort of dismissed the information? And those are people who ostensibly were well-intentioned, but they totally misread me or they had worse intentions in mind and perhaps they weren`t well-intentioned. But the point is that I was given an assessment of my potential which was way below what I was capable of achieving. And had internalized that and behaved accordingly, it would have been a real shame.
LAMB: But you said you interfered with your own daughter, who -- the school was...
LAMB: ... messing with the honors program.
PRICE: Yes, they -- I mean, it was interesting. When we tried to register our daughter in the honors program, wanting the best for her...
LAMB: What city, by the way, was this?
PRICE: This was in New Rochelle, New York, right after we moved in 1978. They didn`t place her where we felt she should be placed. And I went in to see them -- and it`s a very big deal for black fathers to come to a school -- and I talked to the teachers. And they -- the teacher gave me two reasons. The first was, Well -- they said I should be very pleased with where she was placed. She`d be well served. And in effect, they were telling me don`t question their judgment. And I said, Well, I know my daughter`s capable of much more, so I am going to question your judgment, and I want it turned around.
Secondly, they said to me, You all have just moved to town, and there`s a list this long of kids who are eager to get into the honors program, and it`s wrong for you to leapfrog the list. And I sort of apologized for being pushy, but I said, I don`t care. My daughter belongs in honors, and that`s where I`m going to do my level best to make sure she`s in.
But the moral of that story was that there was a list this long of youngsters who wanted the very best that the schools could offer, yet the school was only -- it was husbanding the very best for only a handful. And that`s wrong in the 21st century, where we have to develop all young people to their fullest potential.
And so I told them, I said, Well, I`m going to call the superintendent tomorrow morning, and we`ll get this straightened out. And before I could place the call, they called the house to say that she had been reassigned.
LAMB: Do they ever, then -- is there ever a backlash on your daughter after the dad had been there, you know...
PRICE: There`s a risk of that, but that`s why you`ve got to stay on it and just tell them you`re not going to tolerate it.
LAMB: You made a statement that it`s a big deal for black fathers to show up at a school. Why?
PRICE: Well, I think, you know, unfortunately, there aren`t as many black fathers on the scene in families as we`d like. They aren`t often as engaged in the schools as they ought to be. I think that when black fathers come to the school, it sends a very powerful signal that Momma and Daddy are on this. And actually, parents, then, if both of them are engaged, can do a tag-team so that it isn`t the mother that`s always got to go there.
It was very important -- when I would go to the "meet the teacher" nights out in the schools in New Rochelle, I`d see a lot of fathers there. So the teachers knew that the parents, the family, was on the case, and that`s very important. And the children knew that this was enormously important to both parents.
I mean, to go back to the story of my father coming to those assemblies -- he couldn`t have come to all the things that happened in the school, but I knew that when it really, really mattered, he was there. And that meant a great deal to me.
LAMB: Have you ever studied the number -- whether it`s 30-some black folks in the United States -- how many of -- situations where they don`t have parents? Kids don`t have parents.
PRICE: Yes, and the families are -- many of the families are extraordinary resilient. I mean, there are resilient grandparents, aunts and uncles who are doing a great job. And one of the points of the book and one of the things I think makes it very accessible is that we talk to a lot of youngsters in our National Achiever Society, and we talk to their parents and grandparents who are raising them. And resilient folks make all sorts of adjustments in order to go from here to there. And a fundamental message of the book is that we have to have the will to ensure that our children succeed.
And secondly, we have to have the mother wit. And the mother wit basically says, I`m going to make sure my child gets educated, come hell or high water. If I can`t figure this out myself, I`m going to find help. If there isn`t a relative who can help me with the part of this that I don`t understand, then I`m going to go talk to the pastor. But the point is, I`m going to move my child from here to there. I know which end is up, and we`re going there. And I`m going to do whatever is necessary.
There are wonderful stories of Dr. Ben Carson, the fantastic neurosurgeon who talks about how when he was a child his mother was basically illiterate I think, and yet she knew that having the kids read to her was critically important.
Vernon Jarrett, the distinguished Black journalist, talks about how his grandfather used to have he and his brother read to him. The grandfather was stone cold illiterate but he said, I want you to sit down and I want you to read, and when they finished reading a page, the grandfather would say, you got that sentence over there wrong. Read it again.
The grandfather didn`t know whether the sentence was right or wrong but he knew that getting them to practice reading was important.
That`s mother wit, grandfather wit, so the combination of will and mother wit is what has propelled a lot of young people to success.
LAMB: When things go wrong what causes it in your opinion in young kids?
PRICE: Well, I think that a lot of the young kids are growing up in neighborhoods and in families where things have not gone well for the adults and the adults become very skeptical about whether the system will ever work for them and they impart that skepticism, lack of confidence to the children.
I think that there`s a lot of chaos in some families, violence. That can throw the children off and a lot of times the kids in those kinds of environments turn to alternatives like the gangs that have a lot of structure and alternative formulation of what it means to be successful and the children get sucked into that.
So there are a lot of very difficult conditions that kids are being reared in. There are some extraordinarily, I mean millions of extraordinarily resilient adults who are successful and know which end is up in spite of that but it takes a strong adult to know that.
The other thing that happens is, I think that you find schools and teachers in some situations who don`t believe in the possibilities of the children. I`m on the board of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and they do an annual survey, education survey, and a couple of years ago they surveyed a lot of urban teachers and a lot of urban school children.
And, when they surveyed the teachers, the teachers felt that only about a third of the kids they teach are likely to go to college. When they surveyed the children, two-thirds of them expect to go to college. That`s a massive expectations gap. If the doubts that the educators have about the children are imparted to the children, that injects doubt unless the children have a lot of reinforcement from parents who can say in spite of this we`re moving forward.
LAMB: You say you`re against vouchers?
LAMB: But for charter schools?
PRICE: Right. I think that having lots of different kinds of public schools available to kids that are different sizes, different themes, schools where principals have more flexibility to put together the faculty team that they want is a good thing for the schools. I think that kind of public - those kinds of options within a public system and that kind of accountability within the public system make a great deal of sense.
Vouchers frighten me for several reasons. Now, I understand if we were looking eye-to-eye at a parent whose child is trapped in a lousy school why a parent would want an alternative, and I`d be the last one to say you shouldn`t want that. But when you look at the big picture, vouchers are often framed as an option for low income parents whose children are in lousy schools.
But in very short order given the politics of this country, there`s inevitable pressure that universalize a windfall like that and I can imagine parents who already send their children to parochial schools, synagogue schools, Muslim schools, and Baptist schools saying we`re hard-working Americans. We want the best for our kids. Why should we be cut out of this windfall?
I can imagine home schoolers saying I`m doing the job myself. Why should I pay taxes? Give me some of my money back, and I can imagine people saying why should those low income kids just get this benefit. That`s class warfare. Let`s make it available to everyone. Why should mostly minority kids get these benefits? That`s racial preferences and quotas. Let`s make it available to everyone.
Once that pressure to universalize the benefit kicks in, and we`re already seeing signs of it, the cost of financing that alternative, whether through the tax code or direct appropriations becomes astronomical and the bill will be paid, it will be drawn on the account of the appropriations for public education.
It will not come out of the prison budget. It will not come out of the highway budget and that really could devastate public education, so I think we got to focus on making the public schools work better and not finance the exit of those who are disgruntled.
LAMB: Did you ever feel that you were somebody`s quota?
PRICE: Not in the least. I mean I understand the consideration of a variety of factors and I know that Amherst, for example, wanted to have some African-American students. I was there during the era when then weren`t an awful lot but there were some.
There was affirmative action for white students when I was in college. I mean there weren`t enough black students on campus for there to be affirmative action but many of the great schools, the highly selective schools, wanted to be sure that not all of their kids came from New York and Boston, the ones on the East Coast, and that not all the kids came from private schools like Andover and Exeter.
So, they didn`t just pick from the top according to the numbers on the SAT exams. They said, we want capable kids with lots of potential who come from the South, white kids who come from the South from the Rocky Mountain states, from the far West, from the Dakotas, and so they managed their admissions procedure and the consideration of merit to ensure that there was diversity among white students.
I think that`s fine and I think we need to do that for all students in the 21st Century. So I think we need a robust commitment to inclusion in our society. The demographics are driving us in that direction. I think we`ve got to be sure that all kids who are considered are meritorious but the notion that you only pick based on quantitative factors like test scores and grades is wrong headed.
LAMB: You write the following. You say, "I know that America hasn`t gotten rid of racism and discrimination everywhere in the land. I know that many public schools don`t educate minority children nearly as well as they should but I beg you, please don`t use racism as a reason why you won`t do your level best to make sure your child becomes a good reader. Have you heard somebody do that?
PRICE: Well, there are people who say I don`t believe in the system. The system is never going to give me a shot. Yes, I`ve gotten those kinds of calls on radio, people who are so fed up with or who have given up and won`t engage therefore, and they say if it`s not going to work for me, it probably won`t work for my kids, so maybe I don`t have the time or energy to invest in it.
There are folks who are sort of really depressed, probably bordering on clinical depression about the struggle to succeed if you`re growing up in the heart of the inner city, but we can`t succumb to that. The slaves didn`t succumb to it. The Freedom Riders didn`t succumb to it. The people who were part of the Civil Rights Movement didn`t succumb to it.
And we can`t succumb today because then that`s a recipe for chronic poverty, depression, and isolation from the mainstream and the point of the book is there are so many stories of resilient people who know which end is up, who are just as poor, who have mustered the energy and the will to be successful, and that`s what we all must do.
LAMB: You talk a lot about reading as we have already. Name several books, three or four books that you have always claimed to be your favorite.
PRICE: Well, the most wonderful novel I`ve read in the last ten years is "Snow Falling on the Cedars." I just can`t get over that book. I think it`s a truly extraordinary book. I`ve started on Robert Caro`s most recent biography of Lyndon Johnson, which is quite remarkable.
I vacillate between sort of airplane reading, very light novels, a lot of the stuff by James Patterson. I`ve gotten into Richard North Patterson`s works recently. His book, I think it was "Protect and Defend" I think was a lot of fun in that vein.
And then I go into fiction and biography. Colin Powell`s biography was very moving for me. As I say, the new biography on Lyndon Johnson, the biography by David Levering Lewis on W.B. Du Bois, the two volumes are extraordinary histories.
A couple of others that I`ve read over the years that I was very moved by, Kenneth Manning wrote a book called "Black Apollo of Science" which is the story of Ernest Everett Just and Martin Duberman wrote a biography of Paul Robeson, and those two biographies were remarkable for me because they were the stories of men of out-sized talent and ambition who were confined by segregation.
They pushed against the wall of segregation so hard they ended up almost losing their balance, and both are Greek tragedies but amazingly attractive, brilliant men who were ahead of their time, who would be just super stars in American society today and the stories are so engaging.
As a matter of fact, when I was in public television, heading up the division that produces "Great Performances," we were so interested in both of those books that we tried to get the rights to do international co-productions based on them because they are such compelling American stories. So, I move between fiction and non-fiction and very light fiction.
LAMB: How much do you read?
PRICE: I probably read a book every other week. It depends on how much I`m flying. If I fly a lot then I`ll consume more books. Right now I`ve got, I`m carrying around the biography of Frida Kahlo. My wife and I saw that new film, absolutely loved it. She and Diego Rivera are amazing characters and I wanted to know more about them so I bought the book. It`s pretty thick and I`m carting it around with me.
LAMB: You have the reference from time to time about Blacks in entertainment and Blacks in sports, and then take someone like yourself, if you had a top sports figure, a top music figure, and Hugh Price standing there, which one do you think the kids would go for as a mentor?
PRICE: Well, I think a couple years ago obviously they`d gravitate toward the athlete and the glitter and probably some of the rock stars. I think after 9/11 there`s been an interesting transformation in the way we think about heroism, and I think we`ve rediscovered everyday heroes and the nobility of everyday life with the celebration of the heroism of not just the firefighters and the policemen but the emergency workers who carried the people out, the office workers who carried people out, the flight attendants on the plane.
So, I think something very healthy has happened in that we have rediscovered more accessible heroes because we`ve got to let our young people know that there`s dignity in everyday life and there`s heroism in everyday life, and I think that if there`s one good thing, and it`s probably about the only good thing that`s come of 9/11, is that.
LAMB: I mean do you actually see kids treating you differently than they used to?
PRICE: Yes. I mean we do these national induction, National Achiever Society induction ceremonies. The kids are out by the hundreds. Yes, they`re very interested in the real world now, much more rooted in the real world. I mean the hero I worshipped the most among the celebrities was Jackie Robinson.
When I was growing up, Jackie was a god, he wasn`t just a super star, and I was blessed to meet him when I was nine years old and had my picture taken with him. I thought I was having my picture taken with God because not only the physical accomplishments but the bravery of the man, just an amazing man.
LAMB: Janie Victoria Ward, you quote from author of "The Skin We`re in: Teaching Our Children to be Emotionally Strong, Socially Smart, and Spiritually Connected." What I`m getting at is here she`s suggesting that visiting museums, libraries, attending lectures and plays because the parents feel those activities are too white. What is that all about?
PRICE: Well, I mean we`ve just got to work on our parents about that. I think it`s a little bit a function of time and not a whole lot of exposure on the part of the parents. But, in the book I talk about what can happen when you visit a museum.
We took a bunch of young people that I`m part of a group that mentors a Westchester club and music, black kids in elementary school out in White Plains and all boys, and we took them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art so that they could have a highbrow art experience and a couple of the kids were into the paintings and such but most of the boys weren`t.
As we walked down one of the corridors, the kids spotted the armor out of the corner of their eye. The testosterone pump kicked on and they made a beeline for the armor and their noses were smashed up against the glass trying to read all the captions about the crossbows and the muskets and all that hardware.
Had we had the presence of mind then, and what we certainly should do today is we should have said you guys are into armor? Tomorrow let`s go to the library or let`s go online and let`s see what you can discover about armor.
Had they done that, and think about it, they could have learned a lot about the great religions and the Crusades. They could have learned about the evolving geography of Europe and how that`s impacted the rest of the world. They could have learned some science, the metallurgy of how that stuff is made. They could have learned some math. I mean how far would the shaft of a crossbow go if you pull it down against a certain tensile strength on the bow, et cetera?
A lot of the disciplines that are studied in school could have been reinforced just by that moment of exposure in an enrichment program. I mean if you`re deep into baseball, I as a kid used to, I thought I was going to become a Major League baseball player and I was 15 before I realized it wasn`t going to happen, although all the pitchers who threw curve balls that I couldn`t hit knew it long before I did.
But when I was in elementary school, I devoured baseball magazines. I started out reading baseball magazines for elementary school kids. Pretty soon I could read them for any age group. I learned that if you figure out how to calculate a batting average and an earned run average you`ve got long division down cold.
But the point is you need to look for where the light bulb goes off, where the spark appears, and for the kids who were in the museum with us, it was the armor, and then all the standard stuff that goes on in school could have been reinforced by letting them explore their new found curiosity about this.
That can happen in all sorts of environments, music, the arts, sports, any number of these places, and one of the things I wish is that formal education were more flexible so that when the light bulb goes off they can develop a full curricular and discovery experience around it.
LAMB: Why do you think they were interested in armor? What is it in the society that draws them to that?
PRICE: Well, I mean I wish I was enough of a psychologist to say but there are things that boys are more interested in than girls probably. I hate to say it and I don`t have a more sophisticated understanding of it than that.
Boys are probably more interested in football than girls, more interested in certain kinds of contacts sports than girls. I don`t know but there was something about the armor and making war and all that kind of stuff that intrigued them and I just know that they were drawn to it.
LAMB: You mention the Westchester, the club.
LAMB: What is it?
PRICE: Well, there`s a wonderful group of African-American professional men in Westchester called the Westchester Club, and it was founded some probably close to 40 years ago. People like Cab Calloway and Sidney Poitier was in it and it`s doctors and lawyers and others.
One of the things we do is we each put up a substantial amount of money a year to support an after school program for kids who are struggling in school and that group is called the Club, spawned by the Westchester Club men.
And, we take those young people and they are in this program every day after school for about three hours. They work on their homework. We then have enrichment programs for them, take them on trips. We`ve taken them to museums, to the wonderful science museum in New Jersey. We`ve taken them to West Point. We`ve taken them to auto shows. I mean we`ve done all sorts of things with them.
The point is to provide the kind of after school support that reinforces and supports both their academic development and their social development. Some of them have been taken, invited to visit us. I had one of the young people shadow me at the National Urban League for a day.
They`ve shadowed some of the doctors in the organization. When I was at Channel 13, we took a group of the young people down to our studios and to our editing suites at Channel 13 and it was great for them to see African-Americans, women and men every place in the studio. They were on camera. They were behind the camera. They were in the editing suites.
And one of the greatest moments was when a dear friend of mine by the name of George Miles, who was executive vice president of the station and is now the head of the Pittsburgh Public Television. George came out. George is about 6`3" and kind of gruff sounding, grew up in the projects, looks a lot like Paul Robeson`s son actually. I tease him about that.
And, George said to the kids, he said when I was growing - George is a CPA. He said, when I was growing up if anybody ever told me I wasn`t capable of doing something that was exactly what I was going to do and I was going to show them, and he said they told me you couldn`t do this and do that and that was exactly what I decided to show them I could do and excel at. And, to see those kids react to that and to be inspired, well that was wonderful.
So, we try to expose them to people like George and others who are extraordinarily accomplished whose life circumstances in the beginning were very similar and who have climbed up and climbed to the top, and that`s one of the beauties of a well conceived after school program.
LAMB: By the way before we run out of time, you`re leaving the Urban League in April. What`s your next career?
PRICE: I don`t have anything lined up. There are sectors that I would find potentially quite interesting. I think higher education is potentially quite interesting, the corporate world, the right portfolio could be interesting, something in philanthropy and maybe media punditry. I don`t know. I hope something will present itself.
I have pursued a couple of careers in my life quite aggressively, neither panned out. In both instances, I thanked my lucky stars within six months they didn`t happen. All the situations I`ve been blessed to pursue professionally have sort of presented themselves and I trust my instincts as to whether they`re right for me.
LAMB: The Rockefeller Foundation, you also were at the "New York Times" Editorial Board.
PRICE: Public television.
LAMB: Public television. Of all those, which one did you really enjoy the most?
PRICE: I`ve enjoyed every one of them. I`ve never not enjoyed a career. I can`t do something professionally if I don`t want to get up in the morning and do it, and I go flat out when I do it. So, they`ve all be fantastic experiences. They`ve all built on one another. My position at the National Urban League as CEO has enabled me to draw on all of those careers.
I liken being the head of the National Urban League to an applied liberal arts course because everything you ever learned, I ever learned in freshman, college the freshman year at Amherst is in play there. So, I`ve just had a terrific time at everything I`ve ever done.
LAMB: If you had to name one thing that you would remember as something you learned at these places, start with the "New York Times" Editorial Board, what would they be? What did you take away from there you didn`t know before?
PRICE: Well, I remember when I was getting sick of writing the same editorial, the same theme, same topic about ten times, I went in to see Max Frankel who was the head of the page at the time and I said "I`m really tired of this. They must have gotten the point by now," and Max said, "What makes you think they read it the first time? What makes you think they`ve absorbed the message? What makes you think they`ve changed their behavior? Go back and write it. You`ve got to write and write it and write it until you`re blue in the face." So, that was a basic lesson from the "New York Times" about imparting a message if you really believe in it.
LAMB: The Rockefeller Foundation?
PRICE: That was a marvelous experience because we got to create things and use the foundation`s money to do that. As I look back on the National Guard Youth Challenge Corps when I went in to see the head of the National Guard in the spring of 1989 and said, you know, the military used to be a tremendous outlet for kids who had lost their way and you all have stopped doing that. Would you consider starting a domestic youth corps for kids who dropped out of school?
And, the moment of revelation was when they said, you know, we think of ourselves as youth workers. We just train them to make war, but I didn`t realize that the military invests more in understanding human development than any other institution on earth.
And that conversation sparked, it ignited their interest in what came to be known as the National Guard Youth Challenge Corps which was started in the early `90s, exists to this day, and has been tremendously successful in getting dropouts back on track.
LAMB: What did you gain from or learn from public television?
PRICE: Just the power of communications, just the absolute power of communications and the power of reflective communications. And one of the things that I`m troubled by is the superficiality of so much coverage these days, the entertainment value that`s been injected into the news and I have tremendous respect for public television and public radio because they dare to take a longer look at issues. They dare to be more reflective about the issues.
We can`t afford in the 21st Century to get our news from the news crawls. We`ve got to crawl behind the news and understand, develop a deeper understanding of what`s at stake and that has been the signature of C-SPAN. It`s the signature of public television and it`s the signature of public radio, and I think we`ve got to preserve those values.
LAMB: And then finally the Urban League.
PRICE: Well, I`ve been blessed to work with and to serve a great movement. When I was a young professional doing consulting work, I got to meet Whitney Young, Vernon Jordan, John Jacobs who were my predecessors, and I wanted to be like them, and I got to fulfill that dream.
I got to serve a movement that`s now almost 93 years old, that has helped propel people into the American mainstream. Professionally it doesn`t get much better than that, fulfilling a dream and being able to lead a great movement.
LAMB: On Page 51 you have something called the pledge of the National Achievers Society. I want to read it. "I am excellent. I am excellent. I am excellent. My mind is a pearl. I can do anything. Anything that my mind can conceive I can achieve. Anything that my mind can conceive and my heart can believe I can achieve. I am excellent. I am excellent. I am a National Achiever." What`s that all about?
PRICE: You`d have to be in a church and hearing 350 kids say that. That`s about a mind set, instilling and reinforcing a mind set, getting children to express their commitment to their own excellence and to their own possibilities.
We are trying to spread that gospel of achievement throughout our community and having youngsters say that openly in front of 800 adults is very, very affirming for the kids. It`s very affirming for the parents and it lays the foundation for taking achievement truly seriously in our entire community.
I once said to Mayor Mike Bloomberg that I think our achiever society is a fantastic thing but I`d love to see a parade down Fifth Avenue for all the kids who are doing well in school or down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington or down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and let the kids who are doing well in school march in that parade with their parents on one hand and their teachers on the other. That`s when we will really start to impact the way our children see their possibilities and the priorities that they set for themselves.
LAMB: Can you remember a program that you either had at the Urban League or someplace else that you decided this does not work and abandoned it?
PRICE: Well, I think what we`ve done is by trying to focus we have dwindled some things. I mean we`re not about to get more involved in health than we have been but we scaled back our health activities for a while. We were - I`d have to think harder about that. One doesn`t come instantly to mind.
LAMB: Who walked around the block?
PRICE: One of my colleagues at the National Urban League, a mother who lives in Philadelphia, and she`s got a grueling commute from Philly to New York and back every day and when she gets home she walks around the block with her child and she knows if her child says let`s walk around again. Or if she`s really tired, doesn`t want to go around the block and the daughter says, mom we need to take a walk. There`s something the child wants to talk about. That`s a very, very powerful message, very interesting.
LAMB: Do you do anything as a mentor that you know always works, you can see kids change?
PRICE: I think when you lock in on a kid and let them know you really are interested in them, that you`re really listening to them, and you want to help them unlock their own potential, that`s incredibly gratifying whether it`s with your own children or with a young person that you`re mentoring.
And, in the book I talk about a youngster who was sort of half asleep in the Club program one day and we came in and I asked him what he`d been doing in school and he muttered that they were supposed to do something about writing editorials. And I said, you know I used to be an editorial writer and so one eye popped open, and I asked him how do you go about writing editorials?
And he sort of came up to a 25 degree angle, and before we were done he was sitting bolt upright and we were fully engaged, and this was a kid who had looked at me as a suit and a tie, and was obviously dialed out. By the time we were done that day we were locked in.
His mother came up to me in a Barnes and Noble bookstore about a year ago and said, do you remember him? His name was Devon. She said do you remember him? I said yes, very vividly. She said Devon is just about to finish his junior year in college and he`s studying to be a physical therapist.
This is a kid who was sort of half asleep, disconnected, could care less. So when you see that and you`ve made that connect and can look back on the time when you may have ignited a spark it`s very exciting.
LAMB: What did you take away from the book tour?
PRICE: Probably the fundamental message was the question I kept being asked by parents who would come to the bookstores in the African-American community. It`s all I can do to provide food, clothing, and shelter. Why can`t I just trust the teachers? And the message of the book is that you can`t just trust the teachers.
Ronald Reagan`s politics were never my politics but he said of nuclear disarmament, "We must trust but verify." In other words, in matters of enormous importance you must trust but verify. So, it reinforced the fact that I`ve got to keep explaining to folks, I know how busy you are but you`ve got to get engaged for all the reasons that we talk about in the book.
You`ve got to monitor what`s going on. You got to be sure that what the teachers are doing is in the best interest of your child and you`ve got to let the schools know and the kids know that you`re on the case. You can`t just trust. You must trust but verify.
LAMB: This is the cover of the book. It`s called "Achievement Matters" by Hugh B. Price, the outgoing president of the National Urban League. We thank you very much.
PRICE: Thank you, my pleasure.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2003. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.