A key focus of the new strategic plan for Howard County schools, laid out by Superintendent Renee Foose, is engagement — on the parts of teachers, administrators, students and parents.
It was that engagement that took center stage Monday, Sept. 30, as nearly 300 people turned out for a forum held by the African American Community Roundtable of Howard County and the Howard County Public School System at Long Reach High School in Columbia. The African American Community Education Forum served as a way for parents to learn more about the strategic plan and to learn how to become more engaged in their children's learning.
"The achievement gap is troubling," Foose said. "It starts (in early childhood), continues into college and persists in our society. … I know it is my task to eliminate that gap, and there's always people who say 'I'll believe that when I see it.' I can't listen to that anymore. I say, 'no, it's not a matter of believing it when you see it, you will in fact see it when you believe it.' "
This was the second community forum held by the school system and the African American Community Roundtable; the first was held in March and featured State Superintendent Lillian Lowery. The Rev. Robert Turner, senior pastor at St. John Baptist Church in Columbia and vice president of the African American Community Roundtable, said the roundtable is planning to hold forums every fall and spring with the school system.
"It's important to engage the community in a different way," said roundtable chair Candace Dodson-Reed. "The school system is great at what they do and it's valuable to have partnerships like this one with the roundtable to broaden their message and get their message to more people in the community."
Sometimes, Dodson-Reed said, parents want to get involved but don't know how. Turner agreed, and said to ensure the success of students, parents must be more engaged with the schools.
"Parent involvement is a struggle in the African American community in Howard County," Turner said, but parents want to be involved in their children's education, so "this not an apathy issue, but an opportunity issue. We're arming parents with information so they know how to actively participate."
That's where the forums come in, as parents spent the better part of two hours speaking with school administrators on a many issues. Following a presentation from Foose, school administrators held breakout sessions on bullying, gifted and talented options, a new online guide for college and career preparation and the Common Core.
Prior to the breakout sessions, the topic before the audience was the achievement gap that continues to persist between white and black students.
Among 3,975 graduates in the class of 2012, Foose said, 45 percent took at least one Advanced Placement exam, and 38 percent earned a passing score of three or higher. But among black graduates — 819 in the class of 2012 — 21 percent took an AP exam and 15 percent scored three or higher. Furthermore, on the SAT, black students in the class of 2013 scored an average of 1,414; in the county, the total average score was 1,653.
"Our African American students are still outperforming others across the nation, but (those numbers) still means we have a gap," Foose said.
Ultimately, Foose said, success boils down to engagement, a mindset heavily encouraged Monday night.
"If you set high expectations for yourself, you set high expectations for your children," Jeffers Hill Elementary School Principal Pat Shifflett told parents during a discussion about gifted and talented programs for students. "The more we can encourage that, expect that, we'll be able to close some of those achievement gaps."