Attacking the gap

April 23, 2007

If an identifiable group of students is having a hard time keeping up in school, is it fair to single those kids out for special help? It's a dilemma that many school systems, including some in Maryland, are facing when it comes to African-American boys, who are often on the low end of the achievement gap. In Ossining, N.Y., the school district is using mentoring and other targeted interventions that have also been recommended by a Maryland task force on young black males. As long as participation remains voluntary, these worthwhile efforts deserve support.

Since the federal No Child Left Behind law went into effect in 2002, school districts have been required to address achievement gaps among different groups of students. Even beyond the requirements of the law, school officials in Ossining decided they had a "moral imperative" to eradicate learning differences that were evident between black boys and their peers as early as prekindergarten.

The district, which consists of about 4,200 students in six schools, implemented a plan to help young African-American males in 2005. It includes helping families better prepare young children before they enter prekindergarten; providing mentors, using school personnel, for first-grade students and up; raising expectations with middle school students and their families that college is part of their future; and encouraging more high school students to take college preparatory courses.

Participation in these activities by students and their families is voluntary and is not limited by race or academic performance level. But as part of their efforts to help all students succeed, school officials encourage low-performing black male students to participate. Although test results are still inconclusive, the percentage of blacks enrolled in college-level courses in the 11th and 12th grades has increased from 26 percent in 2004 to 55 percent this year.

A Maryland task force seeking to help more young black males succeed in schools across the state would use similar strategies to achieve similar results. Addressing this state's achievement gap, including a high school graduation rate for black males that was 53 percent in 2003, compared with 76 percent for white males, the task force came up with nearly 20 recommendations in December to help reach the goal.

Many of the task force recommendations reflect practices that have proved to be effective, such as more high-quality early education programs, more highly qualified teachers and more mentoring and other efforts to help these students deal with issues that may impede academic success.

But considering that the work of a similar task force was largely ignored a decade ago, Maryland's school, business, political and community leaders should take a cue from Ossining's efforts and address the issues and solutions highlighted in the latest task force report with greater dispatch.

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