BPSSG supports African-American families in Ann Arbor schools

Group aims at student achievement, helps parents and students

Black Parents’ Student Support Group
What: BPSSG is a group that supports students and parents in the Ann Arbor African-American community. Visitors to monthly meetings can talk about issues and concerns they have individually or at their schools. Guest speakers and special topics are often part of the program and recent meetings have included: a forum for the district’s superintendent search, a visit from Assistant Superintendent for SISS Elaine Brown and also a talk with Mark Fancher, attorney for the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Michigan.
When: Meetings start at 6:30 p.m. Meetings for 2011 are scheduled on: Jan. 25, Feb. 15, March 22, April 26 and May 24.
Where: The Hearth Room of the AAPS Preschool and Family Center, 2775 Boardwalk, Ann Arbor.
Details: E-mail Chairwoman Sylvia Nesmith at nesy@comcast.net

Editor’s note: The third in a series of stories about school board-approved community groups in The Ann Arbor Public Schools. These groups have a regular seat and presentation slot at school board meetings. Today we look at the Black Parents’ Student Support Group (BPSSG.)
Featured Dec. 13, 2010: The Ann Arbor PTO Council (AAPTOC)
Featured Nov. 8, 2010: The Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Committee for Special Education (AAPAC)

From AAPSNews Service

One of the most established parent groups in the Ann Arbor Public Schools is the Black Parents’ Student Support Group, which offers parents and students in Ann Arbor’s African-American community a network of support an a safe place to share concerns.

“Our focus is on achievement – it is the main reason for our existing,” said Sylvia Nesmith, current BPSSG chairwoman, Ann Arbor parent and longtime group member. “We try to address all factors impacting all elements of achievement; students, parents, educators, environments, policies, systems, and processes.

“For instance, we look at the rate of discipline disparities, the comfort level of parents and students in various activities, the encouragement and nurturing of children and equity and racism issues. We look at all of these things and more.”

Black Parents' Student Support Group BPSSG
Members of the Black Parents' Student Support Group at a recent monthly meeting at the Ann Arbor Preshool and Family Center.

The group started in the mid-1960s with parents, teachers and members of the community who had an interest in the group’s mission which says, in part: “… to encourage academic excellence, leadership skills, cultural awareness, pride and respect and problem solving.”

The BPSSG was an outgrowth of the Ann Arbor branch of the NAACP, Nesmith said. She recalled a history of community involvement, including a one-day networking event and rally that brought parents together for this common interest and involved now-retired University of Michigan nursing professor Dr. Elizabeth Allen as a speaker; she served on the front lines in Vietnam.

“We had a student panel that discussed issues, speakers, talent and lunch,” recalled Nesmith. “It was to generate enthusiasm for the schools and some of the things we face.”

The BPSSG is one of several Board of Education-approved groups. These groups have a seat at regular school board meetings where they keep trustees apprised of activities and issues.

During a recent school board meeting, Nesmith noted that the group is looking for  more participation and told the board that the BPSSG appreciates having a voice with district activities.  “We have appreciated these opportunities and believe the district has benefited from our being involved,” she said, adding that she would like the BPSSG to be represented with other district groups, such as Crisis Intervention Teams and on school Equity Teams.

The BPSSG is active in the district on a number of levels. It was one of the key groups contacted when consultant Ray & Associates was setting up community meetings to receive input about the search for a new school superintendent. The group’s meeting topics include everything from individual parent and student situations to districtwide issues such as high school graduation requirements and school assessments.

Bryan Johnson, a Bryant Elementary School parent, has a history with BPSSG; his mom was a member at Pioneer’s BPSSG. He became active this fall when his daughter entered kindergarten at Bryant.

“I always had an interest and a passion around student achievement, especially for black students,” he said. “I felt there were some things I can share and energy I can bring.”

He said he encourages parents to attend the group’s monthly meetings and, if they are so inclined, to become more involved at a deeper level with regular attendance at meetings and involvement in districtwide issues.

Johnson said the group is designed to be an open forum and a “risk-free environment to ask these questions. From parent to child to administrator – we all need to be partners,” he said.

The BPSSG acts as a resource for parents around the Ann Arbor Public Schools in general, and also for groups of parents at individual schools that want to form a BPSSG chapter. Over the years, several schools at various intervals have had BPSSG chapters. Huron High School and Pioneer High Schools both have histories of strong BPSSG support. Dicken Elementary School, Thurston Elementary School, and Forsythe Middle School are schools that have recently formed or reactivated chapters, organizers said.

Although many of the parents attending BPSSG meetings are from the African-American community, everyone is welcome to attend and school administrators and teachers also attend,  Nesmith said. This can be very important in establishing rapport, and keeping lines of communication open. The group’s mission statement notes that BPSSG is interested in “the education of all students with special emphasis on the education of African-American students so that they will attain their full educational potential.”

Nesmith said a main focus is to ensure that students are encouraged to achieve at the highest level. “Sometimes teachers don’t expect students to perform,” she said. “I don’t know if they realize the impact and influence they have. I think we all have to look at children and parent and everyone with a certain degree of respect and integrity. We’re all capable and all of the kids are capable.”

Nesmith, who has a grown son and a daughter who is a senior at Huron High School, notes that the group is not only for parents. She plans to stay active even after her daughter graduates.

“You don’t have to be a parent. You can be a person in the community,” she said. “I do plan to stay involved. When your children finish school, it’s the perfect time to give back, to be active in the meetings and to share.”

In a statement, Nesmith noted that she is “proud and appreciative of the foundation, contribution and strength our community, including some affiliated with our schools has provided.”  She also recognized “the initiative, encouragement, and enduring support provided by organizations and leaders naming Dr. Joseph Dulin, Williiam Ratcliff, Fred McCuiston, Helen Oliver, Minnie Thompson-Powell, the NAACP, churches, some special board members, superintendents, administrators, and school staff; and last but not least some very, very special parents.”

Nesmith said she is also excited about the promising growth, stability, and improvement
afforded by the newer, energetic and skillful parents and leaders such as Johnson.

To reach Sylvia Nesmith and to get more information about the Black Parents’ Student Support Group, e-mail her at  nesy@comcast.net or call her at 734-747-8543.

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