Annapolis principal stares into the faces of The Gap

December 03, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

DEBORAH Williams isn't afraid to talk about The Gap. No, I don't mean the clothing store. I'm talking about The Gap in academic achievement that persists between black students and white students.

The Gap has been around for years, and is no longer a black-white thing. Hispanics and Asians figure into the mix. Blacks and Hispanics lag behind whites, who in turn lag behind Asians. The problem is so enormous that closing the racial gap is a goal of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.

Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and Stephan Thernstrom, a professor of history at Harvard University, are a husband-and-wife team who have written a book about The Gap. The Thernstroms, who are both senior fellows at the Manhattan Institute, called their book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning.

Williams, sitting in her office at Annapolis High School late last month, said she hasn't read the Thernstroms' book. But the new Annapolis High principal speaks fluently the language of "no excuses." She may not be the only, or even the first, principal to talk about the learning gap with black students, but she's probably one of the few willing to talk about it with the news media.

An article last month in The Sun about Williams recounted the tale of how she discussed the learning gap with five black teens who were cutting class. In her office, Williams gave more details on the story.

"I was in the hall acting as a monitor during lunch," Williams recalled. "I saw five boys who didn't have passes. I asked them where they were supposed to be. They didn't say anything."

Williams' persistent questioning led the boys to reveal they were indeed cutting class. Williams extended the quintet an obligatory invitation to come to her office for a chat. After they admitted cutting class, Williams attempted to engage them in a discussion of career goals and their purpose in school. Where, Williams asked them, did they plan to be in three to five years? Williams said she got shrugs and grunts for an answer.

Therein lies the problem that Williams, an African-American, and other educators face when dealing with black male teens. Had she asked them rapper 50 Cent's real name, they probably would have answered right away, with enthusiasm, "Curtis Jackson." If she had asked them how many times this self-confessed former street thug claims to have been shot, they would have piped up, "Nine times!" But academics? Learning? Career goals?

"You have to have a purpose for doing what you do," Williams said she told the group. Then Williams rolled the dice with her sanity and brought up the subject of grades. From the responses she got, the poor woman almost came up snake-eyes.

One boy had a couple of D's, a couple of C's and a B, and felt he had pretty good grades. Yep, regular Phi Beta Kappa material. Another boy, sitting against the wall, said he liked the Level One classes he was in because the work was easy. (At Annapolis, the class levels, from most challenging to least challenging, are Advanced Placement, Honors, Level Three, Level Two and Level One.) Williams said her feathers really got ruffled when the kid acknowledged, "I don't want to work hard."

Williams heaved a sigh of frustration.

"He wasn't getting where I was going," she said of the conversation. As a last resort, Williams slid folders containing the results of the Maryland High School Assessment government exam across a large table in her office to each of the boys. Black students scored 42 percent below white students on that exam. She asked how many had taken government. All said they had.

"You are a part of this result," she told them. One boy sitting on her right dropped his head and mumbled, "It's pitiful." The other boys laughed.

"Man, this ain't funny," he told them. Then he closed the folder and said, "I can't look at this anymore."

The young man is danged skippy it's not funny. Williams was able to reach him. But what about the four who thought it was funny? Combine their attitudes with the notion that you want to skate by and take the easy courses, along with this idea that two D's and two C's makes for a good report card, and the result is that learning gap everyone's talking about.

The Thernstroms in No Excuses alluded to the same problem: Students' grades are only as good as their parents expect. Asian parents expect no less than an A-minus from their children. White parents settle for a B-minus, while black and Hispanic parents become concerned if the grade is below a C-minus.

"Somewhere along the line," Williams said, "the mindset has to change." Unless we get more principals like her, the mindset never will.

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