Seeking way to succeed in private schools Scholarship students study their new roles

July 18, 1998|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

The eager youngsters from poor neighborhoods and the private school administrators had the same thing on their minds yesterday: how to make sure the incoming black students are successful on campus.

In a daylong program at Gilman School sponsored by the Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust (BEST), an urban education expert gave advice to several administrators and sought the ideas of minority middle-schoolers enrolled in a summer enrichment program.

"The biggest challenge is to not believe that you know what to do, to be humble enough to search and to look and, when the kids fail, not to look to them or their communities as the reason," said Lisa D. Delpit, a Georgia State University professor and author of two books on cultural conflicts in the classroom.

"You can't tell me you are a good teacher if you can't teach these kids. That needs to be the message in your school," Delpit told Gilman Headmaster Archibald R. Montgomery IV in a conversation videotaped for other private school administrators.

Delpit's visit kicked off BEST's 11th year as a nonprofit organization that helps academically able but financially needy black students afford private schools. In the fall, 461 students will attend 19 area private schools with aid from BEST, which raises the scholarship money and monitors students' progress.

In her book "Other People's Children," Delpit explains that cultural differences lead to power struggles and misunderstandings in classrooms, and that educational reformers often overlook minority students. They need direct instruction, skills-based lessons and strong instructors, she writes.

"A student will test the environment to see what he can do here," Delpit said in her Gilman presentation. "What they are looking for is a teacher who is strong but who will develop a relationship with them."

And in that relationship, a teacher needs to say, "I think you are smart, I think you can do this, but I'm not going to let you out of this school without learning something," the Harvard-educated head of a center for urban educational excellence in Atlanta said.

The 85 students who will have BEST sponsorship for the first time this fall will receive an average of $8,500 each in aid, said Karen Bond, BEST's executive director. About 8 percent of the students in area private schools are black.

But getting these youngsters into private schools is only half the battle, Bond and others acknowledged. The other half, as Montgomery sees it, is that some "are not performing academically, and it's not because they don't have the intelligence."

Montgomery says some of the students are not used to the rigor and thoroughness required to excel in private schools. "You have a lot of very, very bright kids who are used to getting good grades" without studying, he said. In private schools, they are surrounded by classmates of equal intelligence.

Montgomery spoke from his experience at Gilman but said heads of other schools often ponder the needs of their urban, black students and share frustrations about underachieving FTC students.

To foster good academic habits, BEST sponsors a Summer Scholars program for its new middle school students. The six-week, six-hour-a-day program focuses on mathematics and language arts and "jump-starts" the students preparing to transfer to private schools, Montgomery said.

"It's like a camp but more educational," said Erica Lasan, an 11-year-old who is moving from Furley Elementary School in East Baltimore to Friends School. "We run a mile once a week, we go swimming twice a week, we have two math classes a day," she said.

The Summer Scholars talked yesterday with Delpit about their experiences and anxieties and asked her about her own education and achievement.

Many of their worries were typical of middle-schoolers -- how they would navigate the crowded halls, how they would become and stay organized, how well they would do in tougher courses than they were used to in public schools.

Delpit was sympathetic and encouraging, but she said the youngsters hadn't yet faced the big problem: "The social issues are going to give them the most problems."

Some of the students may soon feel very divided, thinking, "I have to choose between my community and this elite white school," Delpit said.

Here, too, the schools must take the lead, building connections between school and the rest of these children's lives, she said. "The curricula seldom includes African-American cultural history, or even recent history," she said, suggesting that students be invited to tell the stories of their own communities and encouraged to invite grandparents to class to talk about the past.

The middle-schoolers' parents joined the discussion, too. When one mother inquired about parental involvement in private schools, Delpit suggested she "be there."

"As much as you were there in the public school, be there in the private school."

Pub Date: 7/18/98

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