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Bruce Poinsette for The Skanner News
Published: 13 October 2011

Karanja Crews wants to tackle the achievement gap in Portland Public Schools. The Vernon School teacher has organized the Teaching With Purpose Conference 10 Year Anniversary to help provide tools for educators and community members to address this problem.

Crews has planned the one day seminar for the state in service day on Friday, October 14. It will run from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The event will include workshops and a screening of "GhettoPhysics."

Crews organized the first Teaching With Purpose Conference ten years ago as a student at Portland State University.

At the time, community activist Ron Herndon and the Education Crisis Team were protesting PPS over the achievement gap between middle class whites and minority and low-income students.

Crews brought in over 150 educators and national consultants to the event, including keynote speaker Bob Moses and Augusta Mann, who is returning as a presenter this year.

"I wanted to create something to give teachers tools," says Crews, who describes himself as an "activist for education."

"I have a passion and desire to make a difference," he says.

Crews has been a teacher for nine years but he has been working with kids since the fifth grade. He got a scholarship opportunity through the Portland Teachers Program and attended PSU. Crews served as Educational Chair of the NAACP college chapter at PSU at the time of the first Teaching With Purpose Conference.

Ten years after the first event, he sees the achievement gap as a persisting problem.

According to the Portland Tribune, 2009-2010 data says that Black and Native American students are lagging 20 to 40 percentage points behind their white counterparts in terms of meeting state benchmarks. The same article also notes that at the 10th grade level, 79.7 percent of white students meet standards as opposed to 42.3 percent of black students.

Crews says there are a number of reasons for the achievement gap, but one of his primary concerns is the lack of culturally relevant curriculum, especially for African American students. He believes providing students with curriculum they can better relate to will help engage them with learning.

With the success of programs like La Raza in Arizona, where many students in the specialized Mexican studies program performed better in testing situations than their counterparts in the traditional system, there is evidence to back up Crews' assertion.

He founded the non-profit Journey to Freedom Project Foundation, which he will be presenting during the workshops, to address this issue. Crews says the program provides culturally relevant education with an emphasis on history. It also offers teachers reading materials.

During the workshop, Crews wants to present Journey to Freedom as an example of how community members can get involved. He thinks this is essential because it helps encourage students to do well.

Journey to Freedom has an interactive website that allows community members to become coaches.

"It's first and foremost to encourage," says Crews.

The site allows students to post book reports, essays and other academic work while community members can share positive comments and encourage the students to go further in their education.

Keeping with the theme of culturally relevant curriculum, the event will feature presenter Augusta Mann, who is known for her culturally centered workshops and programs for African American and other urban students.

Mann has worked in education since the 1960s. She has been a classroom and reading teacher as well as a staff developer in California, Illinois and New York. Mann has also worked as a professional consultant for the National Urban Alliance.

Lastly, the conference will hold a screening of "GhettoPhysics".

The film addresses the similarities between how pimps and the world's power brokers manipulate society.

According to the film's website, "From the corner offices of Wall Street to the inner sanctums of world governments, from the red light districts in the ghettos to the living rooms behind the white-picket fences on Main Street, game is happening. And if you don't know it, the game is going to roll right over you."

Crews sees this film as another tool to engage participants in the conference, especially community members who may be overwhelmed by specifics directed at educators.

He hopes educators and community members take what they learn at the conference and apply it in the classroom.

"These are tools," says Crews. "It takes a master carpenter. All we're providing are the tools."

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