School racism called rampant

At forum, black teens assert they are left out

`We must meet the task'

More diverse classes, staff training suggested

October 28, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Racism is rampant in the Howard County public school system, teens from nine of the county's 11 high schools told education officials last night during a forum organized by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings to offer students a chance to air their grievances and suggest solutions.

Over and over, black students stood up to say they were given minimal encouragement from some teachers, shown few role models, steered away from advanced classes and generally considered lesser than their white counterparts.

"The school system diligently aimed to fail me," said Lawrence Walker, a senior at Mount Hebron High School, adding that it was only through the efforts of his parents that he was placed in quality classes that could challenge his intellect.

School board members acknowledged that some staff members needed more training to erase stereotypes that certain children can't succeed and pledged to provide it. They also asked that the student speakers and the 100 or so people in the largely black audience at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia recognize that many efforts are under way to improve the performance of all children, including African-Americans.

"There are no excuses," said Sandra H. French, the board chairman. "We must meet the task."

Cummings organized the gathering after a breakfast meeting with School Superintendent John R. O'Rourke in the spring, during which they talked about ways to close the disparity between state testing standards and African-American student performance.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act - which was revamped last year to increase educator accountability and focus on closing achievement gaps among racial and economic groups - requires that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

Howard County, whose test scores make it the top school system in the state, has pledged to meet the goal by 2007 as part of its Comprehensive Plan for Accelerated School Improvement.

"We're here this evening to discuss how to build the Howard County that we want our children's futures to reflect," Cummings said, adding that student input is a key component to improvement.

"This is their opportunity to affect not only their futures, but the futures of their younger brothers and sisters and those coming after them," said the Baltimore Democrat whose 7th District takes in portions of Howard County - including Columbia and Ellicott City.

The students - all members of the county's Black Student Achievement Program, which works to ensure that African-American students meet their potential - took full advantage of the chance.

Shayla Adams, senior class president at Oakland Mills High School, suggested the school board offer diversity appreciation courses to instructors to end "racial profiling," and extensive outreach to parents, which the school system has recently intensified with the creation of a new division focusing on community partnerships.

April Curley, a junior at Wilde Lake High, asked for better representation of African-American achievements in classes. "We need examples of black adults who have succeeded in something besides sports and music," Curley said, to which Cummings added that learning the positive history of African-Americans is important for all races.

Jonathan McCoy, a junior at Long Reach High, called the number of black students enrolled in gifted-and- talented classes "pitifully low," which most of the other speakers echoed.

Board members said they were working to increase the representation so that it truly reflected a school's makeup.

"We have to take a holistic approach," said Patricia S. Gordon, the board vice chairman. "It's not just a question of teaching, but it is also a question of nurturing and caring for all students."

Cummings said the evening was not about placing blame.

"It's not about saying that anybody's done a bad job," he said. "It's just about being better, every day."

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