March 28, 2016

SMU alumni Kelvin Beachum ’11, ’12, Candice Bledsoe ’07, Tonya Parker ’98 and Michael Waters ’02, ’06, ’12 are among the speakers addressing issues that face African-American college students at an SMU Simmons School conference on April 1. Topics at “Looking Beyond the Horizon: Black Excellence in Higher Education” include mentoring, poverty and youth, and transforming the higher education experience for African-American students.

The Black Excellence in Higher Education conference is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Harold Simmons Building on the SMU campus. The conference is free and open to the community, but registration is required. To register, e-mail Yolette Garcia at

College enrollment for African-American students is at its highest in history, but a recent report found that fewer than one in 10 African-American high school graduates are college ready. In addition, when black students attend college, their graduation rates lag behind other students. An average of 45 percent of African-American students who enroll in college graduate, compared to 65 percent of white students.

“The time is overdue for colleges and universities to have conversations about the black experience in higher education,” says David Chard, dean of the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development. “The goal is to understand what structures, dispositions and practices we need to have in order to improve student success. Also, we need to look at what conditions should change. We want to work with community members to help us with this, and are grateful for the assistance of our conference partner, the Youth Action Research Center in Dallas.”

Speakers and panel discussions include current SMU students as well as the following leaders in higher education, justice, religion and professional athletics:

Kelvin Beachum ’11, ’12, a tackle for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, serves as an ambassador for initiatives that spark interest in science, technology, engineering and math among underserved youth. Beachum, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers before signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars in March, started for 52 games as a member of SMU’s football team. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 2011 from SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences and, 16 months later, a master of liberal studies degree from the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development.

Candice Bledsoe ’07 is the founder and executive director of the Youth Action Research Centerco-sponsor of the “Black Excellence in Higher Education” conference. The center promotes college readiness and leadership skills. She is a 2015-2016 fellow for the New Leadership Academy at National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan. A graduate of Baylor University, she earned a Master of Liberal Studies degree from SMU and recently received the Doctorate in Education from the University of Southern California. Her community leadership awards include the Profile of Community Leadership Award from SMU’s Women’s Symposium.

David Chard became the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development’s first endowed dean in 2007. Under his leadership, the school now offers a total of 15 graduate degree programs and two undergraduate degree programs and has grown from 13 full-time faculty members and 42 staff members to 80 full-time faculty members and 86 full-time staff members. Research funding has increased to $36 million since 2007. Known nationally as an education reformer, Chard shaped the school to attract high quality research faculty and deliver evidence-based teaching. Chard was appointed by President Barack Obama to the Board of Directors of the National Board for Education in 2012 and elected chair. The board oversees and directs the work of the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

Nakia Douglas, founding principal of the Dallas Independent School District’s all-male magnet school, Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy, has set the tone for the unique public school in southern Dallas. Students take college preparatory courses like Latin and calculus and develop their leadership skills. Now in its fifth year, Barack Obama is home to 470 students, grades six through twelve, and has a waiting list.  Every member of the first graduating class in 2015 now attends college. The recipient of numerous awards, Douglas accepted the Luminary Award from the Simmons School in January.

The Hon. Tonya Parker ’98, judge of the 116th Civil District Court in Dallas County since 2004, was elected by her judicial colleagues to serve as presiding judge of the Dallas County Civil District Courts and is the immediate past president of the Texas Association of District Judges. A 1998 graduate of SMU’s Dedman School of Law and the recipient of numerous awards, she was recently elected to the American Law Institute, an organization made up of the country’s most distinguished jurists. Devoted to community service, she is a regular volunteer with IGNITE, a nonpartisan organization aimed at encouraging more high school and college girls and women to become involved in politics.

Richard Reddick, assistant vice president of diversity and community engagement and associate professor of higher education at the University of Texas at Austin, is an expert on higher education and African-American students and faculty. His research analyzes mentoring relationships between faculty and black students, including factors influencing faculty mentorship and the advising and counseling approaches utilized by faculty in mentoring black students. A former elementary and middle school teacher, he is the co-author or co-editor of three books on the African-American family.

The Rev. Michael Waters ’02, ’06, ’12, founder and senior pastor of Joy Tabernacle A.M.E. Churchis a Dallas interfaith leader and author of Freestyle: Reflections on Faith, Family, Justice and Pop Culture. He is board chair of the City of Dallas’ Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center, which offers social services, cultural and educational opportunities to more than 300,000 Dallas citizens. SMU, Ebony Magazine and the Dallas Business Journal have recognized him as an emerging leader. Waters earned undergraduate degrees in political science and religious studies from SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, followed by two degrees from Perkins School of Theology: the M. Div. cum laude and Doctor of Ministry with honors.

– Nancy George