A Promising Move For Black Students


June 20, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

Finally, the Howard County school system has come up with a program that could improve the achievement level of African-American students.

For nearly seven years, the Black Student Achievement Program has been the only game in town when it came to addressing the gnawing problem of black students' low test scores. Unfortunately, the BSAP has concentrated most of its efforts on esteem-building programs, giving short shrift to what goes on within Howard classrooms.

But a new program, developed by the school system's Human Relations Office, proposes that teachers rethink the way they teach African-American children and use new techniques to boost their academic progress. It will be piloted in five schools beginning this fall.

School officials insist the BSAP will continue to operate. But it seems clear to me that the Human Relations proposal effectively makes BSAP a second-tier program. And that's as it should be. For all the good that BSAP has done, it has never been able to affect students on a broad scale. By failing to focus on the classroom, the BSAP has limited its academic thrust to enrichment and tutorial programs.

And if its effort this summer is any indication, the BSAP has cut a very narrow swath. A summer school program known as "Helping Hands" charges a tuition of more than $400 per child. Few low- or even moderate-income families will be able to foot that bill.

The new proposal goes much further, giving concrete ways in which African-American student achievement can be improved within the classroom by every teacher.

The program is built on research that suggests that children fall into two categories of learning.

Some are field-independent, able to learn independently of other peers and the teacher. Then, there are field-dependent children, who need group interaction and a closer relationship with the teacher to succeed.

African-American children, the report states, tend to fall into the latter category, although children of any race can be field-dependent. The goal of the report is to teach school system administrators, teachers and support staff a new way of interacting with field-dependent children.

The report suggests ways that teachers can become the "significant other" in African-American students' eyes by providing a more inviting atmosphere for learning and by having high expectations.

The report proposes support groups for African-American parents, particularly in poorly educated families, to help them better understand the unique aspects of their children's


This, it seems to me, is where the BSAP can be particularly effective.

It can also be helpful in the area of peer relationships. The report makes blatantly clear the need to alter the influence of peers on student achievement. Too often, black students get the message that to succeed academically is to "act white."

The report offers ways of changing that perception by convincing students that academic success is as important an dTC aspect of black achievement as excellence in the arts, music or sports.

The report details many other strategies, too many to chronicle here. Suffice it to say the proposal is sweeping because of its impact on the entire system when it comes to educating black students.

Some will fear that putting a greater emphasis on the achievement of one group diminishes the efforts made for all other students. But most of the proposals in the report can benefit all students, regardless of who they are or how they learn.

This is an important step the school system is taking, one that I hope will quickly demonstrate its effectiveness.

It is certainly more than has ever been tried before.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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