Board urges action on achievement gap

November 22, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County school board members say they're tired of talking about the wide achievement gap between black and white students. They want to do something to narrow it.

"We've moved terribly slowly," said Sanford V. Teplitzky, the senior member of the board. "I'm really tired of reading the same reports we've been reading for years.

"We need to set it as a priority and that means placing dollars toward it, placing resources toward it, meaning human and others."

What will be done is unclear. But board members directed Superintendent Joe A. Hairston late Tuesday night to return with concrete recommendations on how to reduce the gap, or at least on how to start.

Nearly three years ago, the board sounded a similar note of alarm. In February 1999, members passed a resolution identifying "minority achievement as a major priority for action." Little has happened since, board members said.

More and more minority students enroll each year in what has been a predominantly white school system. In the 1996-1997 school year, blacks made up 26.5 percent of the enrollment and whites made up 68.7 percent. During the 2000-2001 school year, blacks made up 32.3 percent of the 107,000 students and whites made up 61.7 percent.

Barbara S. J. Dezmon, who heads the school system's Office of Equity and Assurance, presented the statistics in a report on minority achievement at Tuesday's meeting.

The report said attendance rates for minority students are generally high and dropout rates are fairly low, but those students are not achieving as well as whites.

They are expelled and suspended more and are disproportionally represented in special education classes, Dezmon said.

"This is a massive problem," she said, noting that the achievement gap is a national trend. "It is as I have said before ... you're talking about a problem that dates back hundreds of years."

Board member Warren C. Hayman said he is perplexed.

"If I come to school every day and I don't drop out, why is it my performance is so different from people who don't look like me?" he asked.

"Until we develop the will [to solve the problem], we're not going to make a difference," he said. "There's a different complexion in Baltimore County, and we continue to do the same things we did 20 years ago."

Programs exist to assist minority students, but they are scattershot. There is no clearinghouse and no set method for determining which programs work.

Dezmon noted a troubling tendency to deluge low-income, minority schools with special, though often unconnected, programs. The achievement gap also exists in wealthier areas.

"We're doing all these things, but the gap is still there," she said.

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