The topic was "Motivating Black Males To Achieve in School and Life."

The speaker was Baruti Kafele, principal of Newark (N.J.) Tech High School. He describes the school as "gang-infested" but demands results from the students anyway.

Kafele is credited with turning around several inner-city schools that had poor test scores and troubled students. He is a winner of the Milken National Educator Award.

About 150 local educators crammed into Charleston Southern University's Gold Room to hear Kafele speak Thursday evening.

"Everybody is asking ... what's going on with black men?" said Kafele, an energetic figure who engaged the audience.

People are worried that only 47 percent of black youth graduate from high school, he said. A high percentage of the dropouts end up prison.

"What's wrong?" Kafele asked. "Nothing. There's nothing wrong with these boys."

The problem, in a nutshell, is that young black men don't expect much of themselves, their teachers don't expect much of them, so they don't achieve much, he said.

Kafele recalled his own experience when he graduated from high school. His principal looked at the image he was projecting and said, "You'll never amount to anything."

"We can never tell them you'll never amount to anything," Kafele said. "Had I internalized that message and kept it with me, I would never be here today."

Kafele urged educators to look beyond the surface, visualize potential and demand it.

"There are no excuses," he said. "Don't tell me about the gangs. Don't tell me that mom's got issues. Don't tell me daddy is locked up. Once he (the student) comes into that building, he's mine. ... That's got to be the mindset, if we're going to rescue them from themselves."

When Kafele took over a troubled New Jersey high school, he told the custodians to paint the walls white. They said he was crazy; the kids would write all over them.

"They didn't write on walls, because I told them not to," Kafele said. "You tell them what to do and hold them accountable."

He went on for two hours, reminding educators of their mission.

"Do I treat teaching him as a mission?" he asked. "Do I have a vision for what I expect him to achieve?"

After the talk, Summerville High School Assistant Principal Latasha Calvin called it "a wake-up call."

"After doing the day-to-day work, you kind of get stuck in the rut," she said. "To hear it again reminds you, 'OK, I'm here for a reason. I'm here to help these kids.' "

Summerville High School science teacher Tanisha Johnson agreed.

"It's about building those relationships," she said. "Once you understand the children and they understand you truly care, they'll work harder. When they truly see you care, then you start seeing their walls come down and you're able to reach them."

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.