Not so long ago, a New Town athlete - an honor roll student, no less - nearly lost a chance at a full, four-year college athletic scholarship because his SAT scores came up six points short of admission standards.
That near-calamity was enough to prod Rolanda Chambers to do something to help ensure that other bright athletes didn't get tripped up just short of the goal line because of a poor performance on a test.
Chambers, the president of the Owings Mills high school's Parent Teacher Student Association, helped organize an SAT preparatory course for some of the school's athletes. Her goal is for them to prove they can do just as well in the classroom as they do on the playing field, if not better.
"If the kids master the SAT, they can get into college even if they don't get scholarships," said Chambers, whose son is a sophomore on the junior varsity football team. "We just have to get them to pay more attention to the test."
Other schools in the area offer prep courses leading into the SAT, which will be offered for the first time nationally this academic year Oct. 6, though more students will likely take the test Nov. 3. But this course marks the first time that athletes at New Town, beginning its fifth year of operation, have had a course of this type.
The fact that the SAT course is being offered at New Town, a school with a 92 percent African-American population, is significant, as standardized test scores for black students have tended to lag behind those of other ethnic groups.
Just last week, the announcement of Maryland High School Assessment test results for the Class of 2009 revealed that Baltimore County high schools with predominantly African-American student bases had pass rates below 50 percent.
Chambers said the disparity in standardized test scores between black students and those of other groups might have a number of causes but requires a more intense effort by parents to prod their children to improve those scores.
"I just think that, overall, other parents put into play other things that are available, and African-American parents just usually don't," Chambers said. "So, where other kids are getting that boost that they need, our students don't. This is why such a program is necessary. It's doing what other parents are doing for their students, giving them that push outside the classroom for the SAT.'
The two-hour-per-week course, which runs for seven weeks through October, is limited in the early going to 20 students, who are paying a $40 fee to participate. The school's athletic department is on board with the class, and a local clothing store has donated prizes to encourage improvement.
Chambers didn't have to look far to find someone to teach the course. Jeanne Hyatt, a retired educator who works with Chambers at an Owings Mills law firm, quickly volunteered to lead the class.
For Hyatt, who previously taught English, Latin, writing and SAT prep in Baltimore City schools and at local colleges, success on the SAT is a lot like preparing to play a game.
Specifically, Hyatt said, you have to know and think like your opponent - in this case, the people who put together the SAT. Do that, she said, and winning, or passing the test, becomes less of a challenge.
"It was always amazing to me that some of my best students - and I had great students - would bomb out on this test," Hyatt said. "That told me that you really have to teach to the test.
" ... If people come to me and ask, `How do you improve vocabulary and reading?' we're going to try and do that. But our real goal is to get them to score higher on this test."