For nearly half a decade, Dr. Oscar J. Underwood Jr. has been on a mission.

“[My team and I] are working to address the achievement crisis, especially among minority and poor children,” Underwood told the IMSE Journal.

Underwood’s journey began in the early 1970s when he obtained his Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education from Indiana University, then went on to complete his Master’s in Educational Administration and Curriculum Development in 1978. In 2007, he received an Educational Specialist credential in Higher Education Leadership, Administration and Foundations, and in 2012 he earned a Ph.D. in the same subject area.

His teaching career began in Indiana in the 1970s, and by 1977 Underwood was recognized as Indiana’s Teacher of the Year, and was the first African-American to do so.

Dr. Oscar J. Underwood Jr. (left) said it’s crucial a child’s self-concept and self-esteem are in good shape in order for a student to achieve academically.

In 1982, he decided to take on a new role as principal of Ralph J. Bunche Elementary School in Fort Wayne, Ind. — a decision that would wind up putting Underwood on a trajectory to empower struggling students. At the time, Bunche Elementary was an underserved school with a poor track record for student academic performance, whose students came from predominantly low-income and disadvantaged families.

Yet just two weeks after Underwood’s arrival, Bunche’s scores had risen higher than ever before in every grade level.

In 1991, Underwood left Bunche and founded the Cornerstone Christian College Preparatory School.

It was during those years that Underwood began to take in the full context of why Bunche’s students had initially been trailing in test scores, yet had such a quick capacity for improvement. Based on his education and experience, he began honing in on specific strategies that positively affected his students’ learning outcomes.

In 1998, he testified before the United States Congressional Committee on Small Businesses, explaining why his methodologies had worked: Students must not only have ample access to education, but believe in themselves in order to fully absorb it and gain a love for learning.

“I knew there was something missing,” Underwood said. “Adults and kids alike were alienated from their right as an individual to know, access and learn how to maximize that potential, and fulfill their purpose and destiny, and make a meaningful posit in the lives of everyone they know.”

“My methodology is that anyone can succeed in the right environment,” Underwood added. “Just like trees, if the environment is not conducive to them, they retreat — and they pop back up when the conditions change. If a plant can do it, certainly humanity has to look at those environmental messages, too, and how those messages manifest as personal perceptions within people.”

Particularly when it comes to literacy, positive self-perception is key, Underwood said — an issue he addresses in his books, “Bumblebees Can Fly: Developing the Inherent Power in Young Men of Color Needed to Achieve in Education and Succeed in Life,” “Burden of Hope: Transition, Retention, and Collegiate Black Men,” and “Assassination of Human Potential.”

“There is nothing as powerful … as unlocking the ability to read,” Underwood said. “When that is unlocked, the human being in that child begins to make himself or herself known. Why? Because there’s no other species on Earth that can read, except the human being. You can’t separate being able to read well from being able to be fully human. It’s an extraordinary thing.”

Learning to read and taking ownership over the skill is “transformative,” he said.

“Literacy is transformative to the ultimate degree, because reading is transformative for the child,” Underwood said. “Reading points to the fact that, ‘There’s a power in me.’ They’re beginning to speak these words and hear themselves doing it, and they’re understanding that to grasp reading, it must come from within them. The more they use it, the more they can decode that skill and see reading is what makes your dreams come true.”

But before students can achieve that personal and educational success, they must first believe they can, he said. He wanted to know why some students loved learning while others appeared not to.

What he found was that self-concept and self-esteem were crucial to a child’s educational development. When those were low, students often exhibited negative behaviors that were intrusive to learning — and factors like socioeconomic struggles and problems in the home frequently contributed to negative self-image.

However, when students felt cared for, supported and empowered by teachers, their self-esteem, and ultimately overall learning, thrived.

“When it comes to self-concept and self-esteem, the two are actually different,” Underwood said. “Self-concept is the picture, self-esteem is the power. So whatever the picture is, the esteem, or the behavior/power, will show up in order to enforce the picture. One of the biggest things we can help teachers and other educators learn is that behavior is an indicator, we need to pay more attention to it. Behavior is more than if a child is following rules or not — it’s the window to self-concept.”

“I remember teachers who spoke to the potential in me, that’s the person who showed up to talk with them. Those that spoke to the misbehavior I was doing, they were actually speaking to the part of me that was frightened and didn’t know my potential, and was trying to protect myself,” Underwood said.

For teachers, the key is to unlock that student potential, he said. Overall, schools need to be more intentional and systematic, Underwood added.

In particular, things like early intervention in schools can help build a solid foundation of positive self-concept early on, leading to a greater admiration for and openness toward learning in the future.

“Early intervention is key if we’re serious about eradicating this sort of craziness,” Underwood said. “The earlier children believe that the erroneous picture is their real self, the earlier they get locked into it, and that feeds their esteem, which perpetuates those negative feelings and behaviors. Many people are highly intelligent, but they have used it the wrong way, because they have the wrong picture.”

When that self-image is damaged, schools must do their part to perform “surgery” in order to get those students back on track — academically and in their hearts and minds.

“I’ve worked with teachers all over the country for all these years, and what I’ve learned is: Before a child wants to know how much you know, he or she wants to know how much you care — that’s it,” he said. “If we tell them that every day, they get ready to go into that classroom and they are prepared to move that wheel of trust and learning because we have convinced them that we care.”