Columbus native Kevin D. Rome Sr. was a fourth-grader at Double Churches Elementary when he realized that the expectations of some children, especially blacks, weren't the same as other students in the classroom.
"If you aren't seen as smart and capable very early in school, that's going to impact you for the rest of your life," Rome told a crowd of about 60 parents and children at the Mildred L. Terry Public Library in Columbus on Saturday. "One of the things I always knew and thought about was, I wasn't necessarily smarter than other kids, than other black kids (were), I was just given an opportunity that they weren't given. If we all had been given the same opportunity, if we all had been given the same expectations, then we all could have succeeded to a similar level."
Rome, 47, grew up at Farley Homes, a public housing complex, and graduated from Spencer High School. He earned a bachelor's degree from Morehouse College in Atlanta, received a master's degree from the University of Georgia and a doctorate in higher education from the University of Texas-Austin. Rome, who was named president of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., in June, was guest speaker Saturday for "Against All Odds: We Will Succeed!" The program was sponsored by the Southern Anti-Racism Network and the Georgia Appleseed Cen
ter for Law and Justice.
At Double Churches Elementary, Rome recalled how he and two black girls were divided by ability while the other black students were going to a different classroom.
"I can remember observing them and I found it a little strange back in the fourth grade that they didn't seem to be given the same instruction that we were given on our side of the classroom," he said. "I was saying I wish I was on the other side. I could see the difference that was taking place at the school."
That's was Rome's first introduction to how the education system worked in Columbus for students bused from public housing. Most of the black students at the school came from Farley Homes and Booker T. Washington Apartments.
"I thought about that throughout my whole career as I went into education," he said.
Rome also attended Dimon Elementary and Marshall Junior High School. The pattern experienced at Double Churches continued at Marshall, with a few black boys and girls doing academic work with whites in class while most blacks were in other classes.
"There were no expectations for them to do a lot of academic work," Rome said. "I don't know if that is still the case in Columbus. That is the case for education throughout this country. That is what African-Americans experience throughout this country."
Rome spent more than two years of high school at Jordan High before finishing at Spencer High School. He described Jordan as a school that had discipline compared to Spencer, a school where the students did pretty much what they wanted.
At Spencer one day, a group of students turned their chairs into a circle while the teacher was in front of the class.
"They were just talking and having their own conversations," Rome said. "I said, there is no way that would have happened at Jordan. All of those students would have been dealt with."
Expectations were much higher for students at Jordan, too.
"You were expected to do your work at Jordan. It was an expectation. Even if you didn't have the highest ability, there were still high expectations."
Before Rome graduated from Spencer in 1984, he said the school decided that he would go to college, but high school was the end of education for the majority of students. Rome heard other students talking about going to Morehouse, so he decided to attend the college.
The cost to get into Morehouse was more than Rome's mother, Barbara Porter, made in a year. He never knew how the tuition would be paid from semester to semester or year to year, but he had faith it would be paid.
"God will make a way," he said. "I had to a lot of praying every semester despite the situation. My tuition was always paid."
Rome told students that your situation can't determine your opportunity. You can achieve whatever goal you have regardless of your circumstances.
"If everything is given to you, there is little room to work for," he said. "The message that many students in Columbus need to hear is regardless of where you come from, regardless of the community's attitude, regardless of the school, you can be successful if you work hard. It is not because you have money. It's not because I was the smartest kid in the classroom. I was OK intellect. The thing that can make the difference is how hard one works."
Along with working hard, Rome said it also takes faith to achieve.
"Too often, many of us don't have faith," he said. "The thing about faith is you can't see it. You just have to believe it. You have to believe it's going to work out for you regardless of your circumstances. For many of our kids, many young people come to college and they have lost their faith before they start their life."
Rome urged parents to get involved in what their children are learning at school. Many parents are not even aware of how their children are being educated in the school system.
"You send your kids to school and they are at school, they are going to class but what are they learning? What are they really learning and what are the expectations for the kids when they go to schools?"
Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who presented Rome a key to the city, said all children should have access to a quality education.
"It is our responsibility as citizens and community leaders in Columbus to remove the odds against children succeeding," she said. "We should be removing those odds working against children and children should not have to be exceptional to survive, thrive and succeed."