School forums focus on gap

Despite gains in class, black students are still suspended more

May 16, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,SUN REPORTER

Anne Arundel County schools are gradually narrowing the performance gap between African-American students and their peers, but black students are still disproportionately being expelled and suspended for misbehavior and assigned to special education classes.

At five forums around the county tomorrow evening, school officials will release additional data on how minority children are faring in local schools and what's being done to accelerate progress, as required by a 2005 agreement with the U.S. Justice Department.

The agreement came on the heels of a 2004 complaint from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the African-American coalition RESPECT Inc. and about 20 parents decrying discriminatory treatment of black students.

Though the district has created several programs over the last three years to help minority students get on even academic footing with their peers and opened an equity office in October to coordinate those efforts, the glossy red-and-yellow graphs district officials have been preparing for the meetings reveal a troubling portrait.

In the 2005-2006 school year, African-American students made up 53 percent of those suspended from middle school and 58 percent from high school, even though they're only 22 percent of the system's population. About 53 percent of those expelled last year were African-American.

They were also most often expelled for weapons possession and were increasingly being disciplined for vague offenses such as"disrespect" and "insubordination," with teachers and principals defining the terms in different ways in different schools and meting out discipline to varying degrees.

"African-American children are still being seen with jaundiced eyes," said Jim Morris, chairman of the Anne Arundel NAACP's education committee. "We are concerned about teacher apathy. We are concerned about why so many of our young males are in special education and not gifted classes, and why so many of them get suspensions and expulsions, when white students who do the same things might get a slap on the wrist."

The district has reworked behavior manuals to redefine and clarify some of the terms, in an attempt to make discipline less subjective. It is relying on an army of school social workers, psychologists and community liaisons to work with at-risk students to help schools address behavior problems that threaten to derail students' academic success.

By the end of June, the district also expects to wrap up "cultural proficiency" training for all principals and district supervisors, including Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell. The training is to help educators learn to read the body language and nonverbal signs of students who come from various ethnic backgrounds.

"What is an assault? What is disrespect? And wherever possible, we're trying to make discipline about intervention and counseling, and less about punishment," said the district's equity director, Carlesa Finney.

Her office runs on a $296,894 annual budget; her hope to double its resources to $579,781 next year has been threatened by an acute county government funding shortage.

She and other school officials are promoting academic gains: On state math tests in grades 3 to 8, there was a 28 percentage-point difference in 2003 between black students' scores and their peers. Last year, that gap narrowed to 23 percentage points.

On state reading tests in the same grades in the same time span, the difference shrunk from 26 to 19 percentage points.

But the data also showed while black elementary schoolchildren appear to be quickly catching up to their classmates, the disparity between African-American middle school students and their peers widened substantially, particularly in math.

In third grade, black students' scores last year were only 11 percentage points behind their peers. In eighth grade, that gap had grown to 23 percentage points.

"That's concerning and something we've definitely noticed," Finney said.

Arundel School Forums

Anne Arundel County public schools will hold five forums tomorrow updating residents on the progress of its agreement with the NAACP, RESPECT Inc., parents and other concerned citizens.

The forums will run from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at:

Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church, 657 Broadneck Road on the Broadneck Peninsula

St. Mark's United Methodist Church, 140 Dorsey Road in Hanover

Empowering Believers Church of the Apostolic Faith, 7566 E. Howard Road in Glen Burnie

Rapture Church at Mills-Parole Elementary School, 103 Chinquapin Round Road in Annapolis

House of Prayer Church, 1427 Snug Harbor Road in Shady Side

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