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Helping Minority Students

CPMSAC celebrates its 20th anniversary.

When the Chantilly Pyramid Minority Student Achievement Committee (CPMSAC) began in 1984, it served Chantilly High, Rocky Run Middle and five feeder elementary schools.

Today it serves four high schools, five middle schools and 21 elementary schools — and it all began with the vision and concern of one woman — Shirley Nelson — who wanted minority students to do better in school.

Sunday, at the Hyatt Fair Lakes, she and the organization she founded were honored for their 20 years of dedication and hard work on behalf of these students.

"PEOPLE KNEW changes were needed, but Shirley had the faith to believe, the attitude to know things could be better and the courage to act," said keynote speaker Margaret Payton of Chantilly Baptist church. "Thank you for the perseverance and the endurance necessary to achieve success. We salute you today for being a champion of minority children in Fairfax County."

A tireless advocate for children, CPMSAC sets high expectations for them and offers free tutoring and mentoring through its Saturdays Towards Excellence Program (STEP) to improve student achievement. It encourages minority parents to get involved in their children's schools and PTAs, and it provides academic-achievement awards, recognition and scholarships for minority students, throughout the school year.

CPMSAC board member Patricia Gary said the organization initially gave academic-achievement awards to 50 students; now, that number is 500. "CPMSAC serves as a model of success throughout the county in closing the achievement gap," she said. "And it's because of the commitment of a group of dedicated individuals."

Youth speaker Jennifer Brown, a CPMSAC "grad" now employed by General Dynamics, told how CPMSAC develops leaders, speakers and advocates who go on to become achievers in their communities.

"Shirley Nelson reached out and made sure that children like myself were included in academic endeavors," said Brown. "And after I visited Little Rock, Ark., on a business trip and saw the difference between things there and here, I wrote and thanked her for all she's done for me and others. We are blessed because God placed her and the Chantilly pyramid in our lives. Thank you for teaching and supporting us."

The Rev. Eugene Johnson of Mount Olive Baptist Church paid homage to CPMSAC's founders. "In 1984, we listened to Shirley Nelson in church, and she spoke passionately about the concern she had for our children and how she believed that they could do better," he said. "We've come this far by faith, and also by a partnership with the school system and the churches and by the hard work of many individuals. Perseverance, determination and a vision have brought us to where we are today."

AT-LARGE School Board member Steve Hunt said many people talk about problems, few do anything about them and fewer still actually find solutions. "This organization provides a bridge between those in need and those who can do something about it," he said. "You are making a huge difference — one student, one mind, one heart at a time."

Bringing greetings from county schools Superintendent Jack Dale and the rest of the school system, Assistant Superintendent Michael Glascoe looked back at the past two decades in Fairfax County Public Schools. "Programs, principals, teachers and staff have come and gone, but CPMSAC is still here," said Glascoe. "Our children deserve the very best individuals who have high expectations of them, no matter who they are."

Margaret Payton recalled how, in 1984, Nelson told her late husband, the Rev. Leroy Payton, pastor of Chantilly Baptist, of the need for Chantilly parents to get involved in their children's education. A meeting was held at the church, and the sanctuary was packed.

"Traditionally, the black church has been pivotal in addressing social and community action," said Margaret Payton. "African-Americans have long valued education as the key to achievement. CPMSAC is to be commended for the positive measures it's taken to ensure that [FCPS] addresses the needs of every student."

Calling Nelson a visionary, she said, "We thank God that she was aware of the needs of minority children and asked why there was such a disparity in their achievement in Fairfax County." Payton then challenged CPMSAC to keep its passion for young people and remember that "it takes a village" to raise a child.

"In [FCPS], African-Americans and Hispanics still lack behind — by almost 30 points — in English and math," she said. "So you must continue to work toward closing this gap, and continue to motivate, encourage and reward student achievement. We must raise children who are lifelong learners with a passion for learning, critical thinking and problem solving."

Payton said CPMSAC must strive to get every parent actively involved in his or her child's education. And she told the members to keep monitoring and being a valuable force in shaping the direction of public-school education. Payton said children need teachers who genuinely care about them and will go the extra mile to ensure their academic success.

"THERE MUST BE diversity in the workplace," she said. "Children need to see people of their own complexion and culture that they'll feel comfortable going to when problems arise. CPMSAC, as you begin your 21st year, continue to push for academic excellence and to make schools work for everyone."

Payton urged the members to always love children and, above all, "Give them a sense of pride. For whatever you write on the heart of a child will linger unchangeably there and will remain forever. And if you keep helping children, they'll help others, on down the line. What you do for a child will be forever remembered."

Both Shirley and Johnny Nelson (her husband and the president of CPMSAC) received plaques and other awards for all their hard work on behalf of children, over the years, and Shirley received a standing ovation before she began the event's closing remarks.

"In 20 years, I never gave a thought to quitting," she said. Thanking everyone for their support, she said, "I still love your children very much, [but] it's the parents who make a difference in their children's education." With the achievement gap still so significant, said Nelson, "We can't stop working."