Gains sought in minority achievement Baltimore County schools hope to close black-white gap

Some strategies criticized

Veteran teachers to be mentors for beginning educators

April 28, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Five months after a report on lagging minority achievement sparked heated criticism from black community leaders, the Baltimore County school system is showing the first signs of a strategy to tackle the persistent black-white gap.

On Friday, nearly 400 teachers and administrators gathered at Dundalk Community College for a summit dedicated to African-American males, the group with the system's lowest test scores and highest suspension rates.

This fall, 22 veteran teachers will be placed as mentors in 11 elementary schools that have lots of rookie teachers -- a feature often found in communities with high poverty and a high proportion of black students. Liaisons will be hired for three heavily minority communities to help boost parent involvement in schools.

And Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione has set a goal to have every second-grader reading and computing on grade level.

Not everyone supports all of those strategies. Some black leaders oppose the $1 million teacher-mentoring program. They charge that it's a Band-Aid over a deeper problem: a system that allows experienced teachers to transfer to schools in middle-class neighborhoods and leaves first-year teachers to handle students who need help the most.

"They're looking for a simple answer because it's easy to do," said school board member Dunbar Brooks. "And if the achievement levels don't rise, they'll go back and say it's the kids' fault."

Black students, who make up 28 percent of the county NTC enrollment, scored as many as 30 points lower than other ethnic groups on basic skills tests in recent years and lagged behind other groups on college entrance tests, according to a study released in December.

The achievement gap has persisted -- and by some measures has widened -- despite more than five years of programs to boost black academic performance and reduce suspensions.

But discussions at the daylong summit Friday suggest that the root of low minority achievement is too complex to expect dramatic results without deep structural changes in the system and in the way educators think.

Before a predominantly white audience, keynote speaker Molefe Kete Asante, chairman of the Temple University's African American Studies department and a nationally known author, said that black children languish in school because the nation's education system is structured around the history and accomplishments of white society.

Because they learn little about the history of their own people, black children are detached from their subject and become disoriented. Instead of participating, they become "the spectator of the European experience."

To illustrate his point during a smaller discussion group, Dr. Asante asked a group of black male high school and community college students to name five African ethnic groups that had been brought to America. The students smiled nervously; they couldn't think of one.

Then, he asked the students to name some European ethnic groups that had come to this country. The students had no trouble: French, British, Spanish.

"You're all brilliant students," Dr. Asante said, but lack "the knowledge that centers you in your own cultural experience."

He told the larger audience: "It is possible to go to school in the United States of America, kindergarten through 12th grade . . . and come out with almost no understanding of the African-American presence here.

"You can have four years of music in college without studying Duke Ellington. . . . It's possible for an African-American child . . . to sit in any subject and be inside the classroom and outside the subject discussed."

The four students participating in the discussion group said they hadn't felt much racism in school, but knew plenty of other students who believed they had.

Those students, they said, often come with a bad attitude and assume that when a teacher cracks down, they're being picked on.

One white, beginning teacher asked the students what she could do to learn more about modern African-American culture and to understand its language and social mores.

"I guess just being around it," said Antonio Bailey, a first-year student at Dundalk Community College.

Southeast area Superintendent Evelyn Chatmon, who had the idea for the conference, said she "wanted a conference that doesn't spend any energy on laying blame at people, but how to fix it."

She added, "Most teachers are of goodwill. If they're not taking care of the problem, it's because they don't know how to yet."

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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