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Charles Butt donates $1 million to PVAMU; Funds to support Ruth J. Simmons Center for Race and Justice

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PRAIRIE VIEW, Texas (June 11, 2020) – Charles Butt, H-E-B Chairman, announced today a $1,000,000 personal contribution to Prairie View A&M University in honor of University President Ruth J. Simmons.

President Simmons joined Prairie View in 2017 after retiring as President of Brown University where she served as President from 2001 to 2012.  She had previously served as President of Smith College from 1995 to 2001. Born in Grapeland, Texas, she grew up in Houston’s Fifth Ward where she graduated from Phyllis Wheatley High School.  She holds both a Master of Arts and Ph.D. degree in Romance Languages and Literatures from Harvard University.  Simmons chairs the Board of Directors of the Holdsworth Center for Excellence in Education Leadership.

“When I learned of Mr. Butt’s gift, I was overwhelmed,” said President Simmons. “His generosity to the children of the State of Texas and his concern for the quality of education afforded Prairie View students is inspiring to us all.  Our students can learn a good deal from his humanity and the manner in which he lives and practices his values.”

The funds will be used to support The Ruth J. Simmons Center for Race and Justice at the University.  This Center will be proposed for approval to the Texas A&M Chancellor and Board of Regents and the Coordinating Board with the following proposed mission:

The Center positions itself as a multidisciplinary effort, drawing from an array of existing programs that can, together, facilitate greater understanding of racism and discrimination on the one hand and the need for justice on the other hand to strengthen and sustain civil society.  The center’s activities will include:

  • encouraging curricular innovation that helps students better understand how racial and other biases can impact their beliefs, affect their choices and shape their opportunities in life;
  • educational programs for the public on how to combat bias in their communities;
  • expert support for government and organizations seeking to understand how they can improve upon their efforts to assure a bias-free, inclusive environment;
  • training for individuals in leadership positions who wish to improve upon their leadership for inclusion; and
  • support for scholarship and research that adds to knowledge about new areas of injustice that are in need of urgent attention from policymakers and others (such as human trafficking).PVAMU President Ruth J. Simmons

Prairie View A&M University is a state-assisted, public, comprehensive land grant institution of higher education. It is dedicated to achieving excellence and relevance in teaching, research, and service and seeks to invest in programs and services that address issues and challenges affecting the diverse ethnic and socioeconomic population of Texas and the larger society, including the global arena.

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Principal Change At Sam Houston H.S.

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By LaNell Taylor

Some may call it déjà vu, but unfortunately the situation is not rumored but rather it is true. The leadership at Sam Houston High School is changing once again.  Last, week an article was published in a local newspaper and much chatter took place via social media that Dr. Mateen Diop, Principal at Sam Houston High School would no longer serve as the school’s principal at the start of the 2020 – 2021 school year. The announcement came as a surprise to some while others applauded the SAISD board’s decision.  It is believed that the decision was solidified following the class valedictorian’s graduation speech that vilified the school, Dr. Diop and his administrative team.

Not much has been shared from either party (SAISD nor Dr. Diop); however, SAISD Board of Trustee Alicia Perry did offer the following statement:

We will have a change in leadership at Sam Houston High School next school year. These changes are always made with students in mind and their best interests at heart. We value the community and will ensure that stakeholder input is considered as we search for a new leader. We will strive hard to ensure that the campus moves in a positive direction. We take the concerns of our students seriously and we want to ensure that they have a successful learning environment. District Administration will review the concerns in an effort to ensure that they are addressed appropriately.” 

As an alumna of Sam Houston High School in the San Antonio Independent School District, a former teacher of the school, a parent of a Sam Houston athlete, a tax payer in the District, I personally know that the stability of leadership at Sam Houston H.S. has been on shaky ground for at least almost two decades now.  When I taught there from 2001-2006 we had 5 principals (Donald McClure, Joanne Cockrell, John Simpson, Joanne Cockrell again, and Melanie Iglehart – Hammonds) in the five years that I was there and unfortunately that cycle of the forever changing leadership hasn’t changed much since then; therefore, making it a very systemic problem and not good for kids.

Again, not many details have been released as to why this current principal change has occurred, but for many outsiders looking in, we are in an awaken state of looking at the systematic failures of organizations and institutions that have failed Blacks (particularly Black men).  I just believe folks need to make sure history isn’t repeating itself.  In speaking to other individuals, a former principal, mentor, and friends of mine, it was expressed that if I were to dig deeper I would probably uncover evidence of suppression of Black men in SAISD. Immediately in my mind I reflected back to the likes of Mr. Donald McClure; Mr. Everett Fuller; Mr. Charles James; Mr. Lewis Barr; Mr. John Simpson; Mr. Derrick Cade; Mr. Darnell White; Mr. Stanton Lawrence; and Dr. Mateen Diop and wondered what adversities they may have faced within the system.

To all who have walked in the shoes of educators they know “Teaching Ain’t Easy” and sometimes it is not for everyone. Again, I am not defending nor agreeing with anyone on the matter; however, I know that “Great Leaders” are important, but no one leader should EVER stop a show. If ALL parties (parents, students, community, principals, administrators, board members, stakeholders, etc.) TAKE RESPONSIBILITY and are doing their part within an institution, despite the efforts of whomever the principal is, SUCCESS WILL PREVAIL! I’m part of that proof. As I mentioned earlier, I taught at Sam Houston H.S. when we had 5 principals in five years; however, as a campus we were still able to perform and on some occasions even outperform other schools in and out of the District to include areas of academics, athletics, graduating children., etc.

People should also consider that in most school systems today, most principals don’t run campuses like the days of old. Administrators, Vice Principals, Assistant Principals, Academic Deans, Counselors, etc. are the day to day faces we encounter because principals are like CEOs, they are often required to attend meetings and trainings at the District office, on and off campus, in the community, out of the city and state, perform classroom and campus walkthoughs, manage construction, manage budgets, and lets not forget those infamous “other duties as assigned.” I say all that to say that it should not be a surprise that at many campuses individuals are confused as to who is running the campus.

In closing, I’d like to note that when I worked at other schools in SAISD principal turnovers were just as frequent then as they are today, and I never understood how that was good for kids. Much can be said about schools that have or had consistency in leadership.  Shouts out to Mr. Charles Muñoz former Principal at Edison H.S. who served for two decades or more; Ms. Raquel Sosa, former Principal, Highland Hills Elementary in the 80s, and two of my current favorite principals Mrs. Natasha Pinnix of M.L. King Academy and Dr. Derrick Thomas of St. Philip’s Early College High School. Much can be said for their leadership and track records.

I challenge all to look at ALL the data in order to make best decisions.  And please let the good outweigh the bad.

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Scholarships for Black Students

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10 Black Scholarship Programs in 2020 That Are Still Open Despite COVID-19

Every year, there are many programs that give away scholarships to thousands of African American and other minority students. In 2020, though, many of these programs have been cancelled and/or postponed because of the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic. However, we were able to find at least 10 Black scholarship programs that are still open. Here they are:

#1 – Jack and Jill of America Foundation Need-Based Scholarships: Offered to high school seniors who will attend and maintain a full-time status at an accredited, four-year post-secondary institution, starting in the fall of the year and working toward a bachelor’s degree. Learn more at https://www.blackscholarships.org/2018/10/jack-and-jill-of-america-foundation-providing-need-based-scholarships.html

#2 – Walmart Foundation First Generation Scholarship For HBCU Students: Offered through Walmart’s foundation, the program specifically helps students who are enrolled at any HBCU or PBI (Primarily Black Institution) across the country. Learn more at https://www.blackscholarships.org/2019/04/walmart-foundation-first-generation-scholarship-hbcu-students.html

#3 – Jay-Z’s Shawn Carter Scholarship Fund: Founded by Jay-Z and his philanthropist mother, Gloria, this program helps low income students advance their education by giving them the resources they need to enroll in college, pay the tuition, and successfully finish college on time. Learn more at https://www.blackscholarships.org/2019/04/jay-z-shawn-carter-scholarship-fund.html

#4 – Jesse Jackson’s PUSH Excel Scholarship Program: This program encourages servant leadership potential in scholars, and pushes students to develop a passion for social justice and social change. Learn more at https://www.blackscholarships.org/2018/10/jessie-jackson-push-excel-scholarship-program-three-awards.html

#5 – McDonald’s Black and Positively Golden Scholarships: This partnership between McDonald’s and the Thurgood Marshall Fund gives scholarship awards to deserving students that are attending HBCUs and PBIs across the United States. Learn more at https://www.blackscholarships.org/2019/03/tmcf-mcdonalds-black-positively-golden-scholarship-program.html

#6 – Apple’s HBCU Scholarship Program: Program for exceptional students currently attending an HBCU with a minimum GPA of 3.0. Applicants must be working towards earning a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, or a Ph.D. Learn more at https://www.blackscholarships.org/2018/09/apple-40-million-hbcu-scholarship-program-summer-internship.html

#7 – Coca-Cola Scholars Program Scholarship: A program for graduating high school seniors who can demonstrate their ability to lead and serve their communities. Students are also expected to be able to demonstrate a level of commitment to making a significant impact at their school and society in general. Learn more at https://www.blackscholarships.org/2018/10/20k-scholarships-from-coca-cola-program-foundation.html

#8 – Gucci Changemakers Diversity and Inclusion Scholarship Program: A global program that promotes unity, diversity and inclusion through it’s Gucci Changemakers program. The program offers more than $1 million in scholarships that will be allocated to financing the education of at least 70 fashion students. Learn more at https://www.blackscholarships.org/2019/04/gucci-changemakers-diversity-inclusion-scholarship.html

#9 – Foot Locker/ United Negro College Fund Scholarship Program: A partnership between the Foot Locker Foundation, Inc. and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) to fund a scholarship program for students attending a UNCF member college or university during the fall of the current year. Learn more at https://www.blackscholarships.org/2020/05/foot-locker-united-negro-college-fund-scholarship-program.html

#10 – Davis Scholarship For Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math): Willma H. Davis has partnered with the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) to establish a scholarship to encourage minority female students to pursue a future career in the STEM fields. Candidates must be classified as sophomore, junior, or senior in the Fall and attend a UNCF-member institution. Learn more at https://www.blackscholarships.org/2020/05/willma-h-davis-scholarship-for-women-in-stem.html

For more 2020-2021 scholarships, visit BlackScholarships.org

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Princeton’s First Black Valedictorian

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Nicholas Johnson, an operations research and financial engineering concentrator from Montreal, has been named valedictorian of Princeton’s Class of 2020.

Johnson is the first black valedictorian in Princeton’s history.

He said he appreciates the encouragement he has received at Princeton in developing his academic interests. The University’s support through opportunities including international internships and cultural immersion trips to Peru, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom were especially significant, Johnson said. But most of all, he treasures his relationships with his classmates.

“My favorite memories of my time at Princeton are memories of time spent with close friends and classmates engaging in stimulating discussions — often late at night — about our beliefs, the cultures and environments in which we were raised, the state of the world, and how we plan on contributing positively to it in our own unique way,” Johnson said.

Johnson plans to spend this summer interning as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D. E. Shaw Group before beginning Ph.D. studies in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in fall 2020.

Along with his concentration in operations research and financial engineering, he is pursuing certificates in statistics and machine learningapplied and computational mathematics, and applications of computing.

His research has focused primarily on sequential decision-making under uncertainty, optimization, and the ethical considerations that must be made given the increasing role of algorithmic decision-making systems.

His senior thesis, “Sequential Stochastic Network Structure Optimization with Applications to Addressing Canada’s Obesity Epidemic,” focuses on developing high-performance, efficient algorithms to solve a network-based optimization problem that models a community-based preventative health intervention designed to curb the prevalence of obesity in Canada.

This work, supervised by Miklos Racz, assistant professor of operations research and financial engineering, also has applications to public health interventions designed to increase adherence to strict social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Johnson has another ongoing research project supervised by Yacine Ait-Sahalia, the Otto A. Hack ’03 Professor of Finance and professor of economics, in which he is developing a reinforcement learning agent to execute large financial trade orders with minimal market distortion.

During his junior year, Johnson conducted an independent research project, “Generating Privacy Preserving Synthetic Datasets,” supervised by Prateek Mittal, associate professor of electrical engineering, in which he developed a machine learning system to more robustly anonymize datasets than existing alternatives. He presented this work at the spring 2019 Electrical Engineering Symposium and the 2019 Center for Statistics and Machine Learning Symposium.

Among his other professors, William Massey, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering, and Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, a lecturer in African American studies, were also influential.

“Professor Massey inspired me by sharing his ever-present love for operations research and through his advocacy for black and African American students in STEM fields,” Johnson said. “He encouraged me to pursue increasingly ambitious research projects and to share my work at academic conferences. Professor Gutarra introduced me to academic writing during my first-year Writing Seminar. She was instrumental in helping me develop my skills as an effective academic writer and communicator, and she motivated me to become a writing fellow.”

In addition to serving as a writing fellow at Princeton’s Writing Center, Johnson is editor of Tortoise: A Journal of Writing Pedagogy. He is a member of Whitman College, where he has served as a residential college adviser. He is also a member of the Princeton chapter of Engineers Without Borders and served as its co-president in 2018.

As a rising senior, Johnson worked as a software engineer in machine learning at Google’s California headquarters.

He previously interned at Oxford University’s Integrative Computational Biology and Machine Learning Group, developing and implementing a novel optimization technique under the supervision of Aleksandr Sahakyan, principal investigator and group head. He presented the project at Princeton’s inaugural Day of Optimization in October 2018 and at the 25th Conference of African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences in June 2019, where his project was recognized with the Angela E. Grant Poster Award for Best Modeling.

Johnson has interned at Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, and he participated in Whitman’s exchange program with Morningside College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in March 2017.

Among his academic honors, Johnson is a recipient of the Class of 1883 English Prize for Freshmen in the School of Engineering, a two-time recipient of the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence, and co-recipient with Sommers of the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in fall 2019 and to Tau Beta Pi in 2018, where he served as president of the Princeton Chapter in 2019.

Johnson is a graduate of Selwyn House School and attended Marianopolis College, both in Westmount, Quebec.

By Denise Valente, Princeton University, Office of Communications

Photo by Lisa Festa, Center for Career Development

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