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Oprah is investing in kids who want to learn

12:26 PM, Jan 4, 2007   |    comments
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Well, the holidays are over and the kids are eagerly donning their uniforms and bursting through the schoolhouse doors to continue their education. I looked with awe at their sprightly faces, so eager to buckle down and learn. No, I'm not hallucinating. I saw those determined faces myself - on CNN. They weren't the faces of Detroit-area children, who, I'd venture to say, are less than enthusiastic about a new semester. They were the faces of children in South Africa, who will be the first to attend the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, a $40-million project bankrolled by the media mogul herself. Cry, our beloved country To be sure, the project is a godsend to a nation where 75% of the children drop out of school by age 12 and only 5% do well enough to go to college. For Winfrey, educating South African girls is not only about charity, but about social change. "Girls who are educated are less likely to get HIV/AIDS," she said, according to the Associated Press. But then she told CNN something that felt like a pinprick in the balloon of goodwill: "I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I stopped going," she said. "The sense that you need to learn just isn't there. If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don't ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school." What money can't buy When Nina Hawkins heard Oprah's words, she agreed. "I can see why Oprah opened a school in Africa," said Hawkins, a teacher at Bunche Elementary School in Detroit. "There, education is still highly valued. Here, we take it for granted." Hawkins, who has taught for 17 years, doesn't take anything for granted. She won the 2006 Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award, a prize of $25,000 awarded to only 100 innovative teachers each year. The foundation noted how she incorporates ethics and values into her classroom and sets up incentives - often out of her own pocket - to get the most out of her students. Still, Hawkins often feels like it's an uphill battle to impart the three Rs. She said that the students at Oprah's school may have the one R missing in American society: respect. "Everyone can't get a brand-new school; we have to take care of what we have," she said. "Mind-sets have to change. Parents have to show leadership, children have to be motivated to learn and the districts can't accept poor behavior." People have criticized Oprah for building an opulent facility in the midst of abject poverty, with 28 buildings, state-of-the-art classrooms, a library, a theater and a wellness center. But the irony is that the 450 girls who will eventually board there won't need that kind of investment in order to learn. Oprah vows to make her school the best one of its kind in the world. If that happens, it won't necessarily be because of what Oprah put into it, but because of what the girls brought with them.

By Desiree Cooper, Detroit Free Press Columnist

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