Standing before a congregation of thousands at Inglewood’s Faithful Central Bible Church on Sunday, a familiar speaker elicited a chorus of “amens” and “hallelujahs” with his message onthe importance of education to the success of black Americans.
“Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, there is no gift that you can give to all of our children that is more important than preparing them to be able to go to college. It is imperative that the African American community of this state and of this nation do that.”
The words were delivered not by Faithful Central’s senior pastor, Bishop Kenneth C. Ulmer, although he too is a big education booster -- but by Chancellor Charles B. Reed, head of the 23-campus California State University system.
Reed had traveled from ivory tower to house of worship as part of the university’s Super Sunday initiative, a collaboration with black churches begun five years ago to increase the college readiness and enrollment of African American students.
On several Sundays in February, Cal State leaders, including the chancellor, campus presidents, trustees and others, speak at churches and provide information about planning and applying or college. Their appearances are part of the university system’s African American Initiative, which also includes summer algebra workshops and education fairs. Other initiatives target Latino, Native American and Southeast Asian communities.
This year, more than 100 churches statewide will participate in Super Sunday events, with outreach to an estimated 100,000 families, Cal State officials said.
Reed said the effort was bearing fruit: Applications of first-time African American freshmen increased from about 9,700 in 2005 to nearly 16,000 in 2008-09; undergraduate enrollment of African Americans went from 19,800 to about 22,100 over the same period.
“This is a result of the effort we’ve put in over the last five years,” said Reed, who cited some of the numbers in an “accountability report” he gave to parishioners.
The initiative took shape after Reed convened community, civic and religious leaders, including Bishop Charles E. Blake of West Angeles Church of God in Christ, to discuss ways to increase the stagnant enrollment of African American students. They struck on the idea of using the church as a pulpit to preach the advantages of a college degree.
“We work with them to build a culture in the congregation of the expectation of college-going,” said James Rosser, president of Cal State Los Angeles, who was involved in the early stages of the initiative. Rosser is scheduled to attend an upcoming Super Sunday event at a Norwalk church. “There’s no reason why any kid should be denied the opportunity to get a bachelor’s and go on to get a professional degree.”
Rosser said the hands-on involvement of top leaders from the chancellor on down gives the events credibility in the community.
“We’ve been effective because we have approached this in an honest and open way and put our integrity as individuals and professionals and as a system on the line,” he said.
At Faithful Central, Reed stressed the importance of preparing for college well ahead of high school, as early as the fifth or sixth grade. After services, he stopped by a booth in the church parking lot piled with Cal State materials and helped pass out brochures that included guidelines on classes, grades, tests and other requirements needed to qualify for enrollment at Cal State campuses.
The joyous nature of the Super Sunday event was a contrast to the bleak financial picture facing the university system because of state budget cuts. Programs have been slashed and faculty furloughed.
Even as the university is trumpeting outreach efforts to black and other underrepresented communities, campuses have been forced to eliminate thousands of spaces for students to cut costs. But Reed said the university was committed to diversity and to providing financial aid.
The Cal State system is the largest recipient of federal Pell Grants in the United States. Through those awards and state and university grants, most families with incomes of $80,000 or below would qualify for a full scholarship, Reed said.
That news resonated with Priscilla Walker, a Culver City High School senior who has applied to Cal State Northridge.
“I was really impressed with the financial aid package because that will really help me in my life plans,” said Priscilla, 17, who heard Reed speak and got the chance to meet him after the service.
Reed’s appearance also impressed Brandon Scott, a ninth-grader at the California Academy of Math and Science in Carson, who picked up a brochure.
“I actually didn’t know a lot about the CSU, but I think I would give it some consideration,” said Brandon, 14, who said he hopes to become a Navy pilot one day.
Daniel Scott, Brandon’s father, said the education initiative’s alignment with churches was particularly appropriate. “Especially for the African Americans, the church is a support and a point of strength,” said Scott, who lives in Inglewood and works for Northrop Grumman. “It ought to be leveraged to where education is a critical tool in the toolbox.”
Faithful Central joined the initiative four years ago, said LaRoya Jordan, pastor of Christian education for the church, which has 1,100 student members. Church leaders had grown concerned about the high school dropout rate in Inglewood, Compton and other nearby communities.
“It was severe -- about 57%,” Jordan said. “So once we found out about the initiative, we immediately got on board as a partner. People coming to our church can get information they need about employment, healthcare, how to buy a house. So why wouldn’t we give them information about colleges?”
The Super Sunday initiative played a key role in Malcolm Johnson’s decision to enroll in Cal State Bakersfield. Johnson, a sophomore majoring in business administration, attended two events as a member of West Angeles Church, where he heard the chancellor speak and liked what he heard about the Bakersfield campus.
“They let you get a little glimpse of them, and it puts them on the list,” said Johnson, 19, in a telephone interview. “I found out this was really where I needed to be.”