Black students need help to find the right note


September 27, 1998|By Harold Jackson

ONE OF THE BEST big bands in the country, the Baltimore Jazz Orchestra, gave a concert Wednesday night at the Peabody Institute featuring legendary songstress Ethel Ennis.

As striking to me as the superb renditions of numbers written by Gershwin, Ellington and Basie was the composition of the audience -- almost entirely white.

Perhaps the setting had a lot to do with that. The Peabody Conservatory isn't generally regarded as a venue for hot music. But African Americans invented jazz, and it was a bit disconcerting to see so few present for a performance by one of the true vocal masters of the musical idiom, Ms. Ennis.

No complaints

I know, some of you are asking yourselves what difference does it make how many black people were in the audience, or in the band (three out of 18). If the music was good and the audience was receptive and appreciative, there should be no complaints.

You're right. The orchestra's performance was one of those times when race didn't really matter. But we should all understand that there are times when it does. In education, for example.

The Howard County chapter of the NAACP has been pressing the county school board to hire more black teachers. I agreed with the NAACP in a column, but made some disparaging remarks about the way the civil rights organization was using "time-worn" tactics to bring about change.

I was quickly reminded that you have to be careful when you criticize the NAACP in this part of the country. One letter writer was so upset that he accused me of wanting to be an "honorary white." Clearly he had me confused with Clarence Thomas.

I'm from Alabama, where Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference long ago became the dominant civil rights force when the older organization was banned. But I know what the NAACP did to end segregation.

That letter writer was right about one thing: I might not even have my job were it not for the NAACP's work to integrate America. But that still doesn't mean the organization is infallible. It's run by human beings, and all of us make mistakes, especially me.

I may be making one now in continuing to press this matter. But I still believe the NAACP is using the wrong tools to reach a desirable goal. The statistics it has been using to illustrate the need for more black teachers don't make a strong enough case.

It was pointed out that while the number of black teachers in Howard, 12 percent, doesn't match the number of black students, 17 percent, this county does better than other school systems in the Baltimore metropolitan area that have smaller percentages of black faculty.

The NAACP responded by saying Howard schools should instead be compared to those in the Washington metropolitan area. It noted Prince George's County, where black teachers are 41 percent of the total, and Montgomery County, 11 percent.

But the student population is 20 percent black in Montgomery County and 75 percent black in Prince George's. Both have farther to go than does Howard County to match the percentage of black students to teachers.

That said, we need to get off all this talk about teacher percentages, as if there is some magic number, and talk about the bottom line -- black student achievement. It needs to improve and putting more black teachers in Howard County classrooms might help.

Astounding gap

The State Board of Education released a report Wednesday that showed an astounding gap between the scores of African Americans and children of other races tested under the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

Less than 15 percent of black boys in the third grade passed the test, compared to 27 percent of Hispanic boys; 33 percent of Native American boys; 42 percent of white boys, and 49 percent of Asian boys. The numbers were not that much better for black girls.

The "Minority Achievement in Maryland" report said black students have lower attendance and graduation rates than whites and a higher drop-out rate. Even black students in affluent Howard County are underachievers, which means poor performance cannot be blamed solely on social problems.

More role models needed

A critical factor in all the discouraging statistics is a lack of "good" black teachers who are not only effective instructors but important role models and motivators who can bring out the best in African-American students.

Such teachers are hard to find, but Howard County needs more of them. Maryland needs more of them. Indeed, the country needs more of them. Black student performance is a concern everywhere.

It's like listening to improvisational music, jazz. It's only enjoyable when the musicians have the type of rapport that allows them to feed off each other, to respond in tune when musically addressed.

Too many black students are way off key. They need help to find the right note. A teacher they can identify with might do that.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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