The promise of the ruling remains largely deferred
By By Sara Neufeld
May 16, 2004 at 3:00 AM
As the bell rings at 7:35 on a Monday morning, 16-year-old Anthony Wiggins settles into his usual seat in the back row of a half-empty English classroom at Randallstown High School.
Nine of the 19 students wander in over the next 40 minutes as teacher Patty Courtney lets them retake an open-book quiz on A Raisin in the Sun. Anthony writes something for each question before turning to last night's science homework. Courtney has little success stopping student conversations throughout the quiz, or these outbursts from two girls on opposite ends of the room:
"Ms. Courtney, I don't feel like writin'."
"Ms. Courtney, it's fourth quarter. I already passed."
"Ms. Courtney, I'm not doing it."
This first class on the first day of the week sets the tone for much of Anthony's schooling. And his experiences over the next seven hours illustrate a grave national problem: Many black students are not fulfilling their academic potential - even in prosperous communities such as Randallstown, where household income surpasses county and state averages.
Fifty years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that segregated schools are unequal and therefore illegal, the dream behind the lawsuit remains deferred.
In school districts across the nation, in struggling cities and booming suburbs, black and Latino students consistently post lower test scores than whites.
Meanwhile, many schools are resegregating. Randallstown High, for example, is 98 percent black; Towson High, 14 miles away, is 78 percent white.
"When I say I go to Randallstown, some people laugh," says Anthony, 6-feet-2 with a sturdy build, a boyish face and a deep but quiet voice. He wishes he were being challenged more at school, and imagines what people would say if he attended Towson High: "They'd be like, 'Oh, you go to Towson. You must be smart.'"
Over the past six months, The Sun conducted more than 100 interviews and visited a dozen schools in Baltimore County's Liberty Road corridor, where black enrollment exceeds 80 percent. Students, teachers and parents described a host of factors fueling a culture of underachievement.
Though they try mightily, teachers often are inexperienced and have trouble controlling their classes. Though they care intensely, parents often aren't monitoring their children's academic performance. Though they show much promise, students often aren't working to the best of their abilities.
Such problems are most acute in majority-black city schools. But they are spreading rapidly through suburbia as black families migrate in search of safer streets and better education, and white families move away.
In Baltimore County, the number of black students has jumped tenfold since the Brown decision, from 3,800 to 38,000. At Randallstown High, which opened in 1969 to serve a virtually all-white suburb, only 23 white students remain in a school of 1,540. Though the school is reeling from a May 7 shooting that wounded four students, its greatest long-term challenge is low achievement.
During legal segregation, blacks attended school in primitive buildings, using books discarded by whites. In the Brown opinion delivered May, 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that "a sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn." Segregating black children "generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."
Today, the fight for access to equal resources is largely over, at least in the suburbs. Baltimore County has a black superintendent for its 108,000-student district, three black school board members and a black PTA Council president.
Still, students in majority-black schools feel a different kind of inferiority.
"They know they don't always have the best teachers," says Amy Stuart Wells, a Columbia University education sociologist. "They know they don't have the most challenging curriculum. They know they're in a separate building from the kids going on to Ivy League colleges."
Move to Randallstown
As a little boy in Baltimore's Liberty Heights community, Anthony slept on a mattress with his three younger siblings while their mother, Cheryl Pratt, worked two full-time jobs. Anthony attended Grove Park Elementary through third grade, then got a scholarship to All Saints School.
By 1999, fearing neighborhood drugs and violence, and desperate for more space, his mother and her now-husband, cabinet-maker Reno Pratt, bought a brick rancher on Randallstown's quiet Janbrook Road.
These days, the children have their own bedrooms and computers. Their mother works full time in the processing department at K Bank in Owings Mills and owns two assisted-living homes for the elderly in Baltimore. She hopes her family's upward mobility will continue.
"I'm really looking forward to [Anthony's] going to college," says Pratt, 37. "He will be the first in our family to attend college."
After the family moved, Pratt heard a neighbor raving about county schools and switched Anthony to Deer Park Magnet Middle School midway through seventh grade. It was a shock.
"You don't even say curse words at private school," says Anthony, who traded his shirts and ties for baggy jeans and sweat shirts. "You just be quiet and go to class. When I got to Deer Park, they were cussing out the teachers and fighting all the time. Then I got to Randallstown. It was even worse."
At Deer Park, Anthony felt much of the material was review. His academics and his behavior started to slip. Though he made the honor roll once in eighth grade, Anthony was suspended twice for fighting. In ninth grade at Randallstown, he got into two more fights and was suspended.
His mother wanted to pull Anthony out of the school. It was his choice to stay. He didn't want to have to make new friends yet again.
Activity at Randallstown High begins soon after dawn, when neighborhood parents drop off dozens of high-achieving students. They depart in five buses for magnet programs in Towson, Catonsville and elsewhere.
Magnet programs were created partly to ease integration at schools in white neighborhoods and to curb white flight. As compulsory busing policies failed in the wake of Brown, many school districts adopted such voluntary programs.
But now, in an instant, some of the best and the brightest are gone from Randallstown High. For those remaining, expectations sometimes seem low.
In his English class, Anthony gets A's and B's without putting forth much effort. Courtney, the teacher, says she won't give less than a B to any student who attends class and completes the assignments, as Anthony has.
A new student in the class, Nakia Williams, also has noticed lax standards. She transferred in March from Old Mill High, a more racially mixed school in the blue-collar Glen Burnie area of Anne Arundel County.
Classes are "like a review," says Nakia, 17. She arrived to find her U.S. history class still on the Spanish-American War, when her Old Mill class had been studying Hitler. And teachers don't push as hard. "It kind of reminds me of kindergarten. Every time you get a question right, they're like, 'Good job.' If you don't do your work, you could turn it in next week."
Randallstown students generally don't hand in homework on time, Courtney says. "If we did not extend due dates, we wouldn't get hardly anything. ... I do it because I don't want to let them off the hook."
Much of Anthony's day is a blur of uninspiring classes - in technology education, he has had six teachers this year. But honors U.S. history and African-American history stand out as his favorites. Especially U.S. history. It was overwhelming at first, but he loves the challenge. He sits in the front row, and has raised his grade from a D to a B.
Anthony's teacher, Luchana Brown, offered two thoughts about how to motivate students. One: "They sit through seven classes a day. It has got to get boring if the teacher is not on stage. Every period, I'm on stage." Two: "Not every kid is self-motivated. They do their work to please you, so you have to let them know that you care about them."
Brown has the students working on 10- to 12-page research papers, which must be professionally bound and include a section on the process of researching and writing. She will not accept any paper unless a parent indicates whether the student has fulfilled detailed requirements. Reminding the class not to use clip art on the cover page, she said recently, "It doesn't impress professors when you go to college, and it's not going to impress me."
Brown is the kind of teacher Randallstown's new principal, Tom Evans, wants. The school's third leader in three years, he plans to stay "for the duration" to fix its many problems.
No school can change students' home lives, preconceived attitudes on education and the host of other social factors contributing to academic achievement. What school leaders can control are teacher quality and classwork rigor. Experts nationally agree that those two factors make a major difference.
Every year, Randallstown has seen about a quarter of its teachers leave. The local teachers union contract includes the right to transfer after two years, and many seek jobs in affluent, majority-white schools, where the pay is the same for less demanding work.
Evans doesn't want to force anyone to stay. It is critical, he says, that schools have teachers who want to be there.
While majority-black schools generally have the same ratio of teachers as majority-white schools, true equality remains elusive. Half of Randallstown's teachers are in their first or second year there; more than a third lack full state certification.
For all that they lacked, Maryland's segregated schools had, by all accounts, exceptionally qualified teachers, partly because teaching was one of the few outlets for black intellectuals. Students were told they had to perform at twice the level as whites to compete.
Yet today, their performance lags. On last year's Maryland High School Assessment tests, only 18 percent of Randallstown students passed the English portion. Countywide, 47 percent of white students passed the English test, compared with 20 percent of black students; statewide figures show a similar gap.
Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, concerned about this gap, is trying to attract and retain quality teachers at low-performing schools with signing bonuses of up to $3,500. Randallstown is one of 10 high schools that this fall will divide into small "academies" to provide students with more individual attention.
Students credit Evans, 56 and a principal for 25 years, with improving discipline and taking their concerns seriously. The number of students taking Advanced Placement exams jumped from 47 last year to 110 this year. Suspensions are down by a third. The number of eighth-graders choosing Randallstown for its own magnet programs has nearly doubled.
Still, Evans says, "I'm very concerned that some of our teachers don't have high enough expectations for our kids. I want kids to be proud of their diploma. I want them to know they're going to be able to compete. Right now, I'm not sure our kids can compete."
Anthony's school day, which began with the Raisin in the Sun quiz, ends with geometry, his worst subject. He's not the only one having trouble in the class - eight of the 22 students have already failed for the year.
Anthony again sits in the back. The teacher, David Baker, has urged him to move to the front. Anthony says he tried it once, and the boys in back threw paper at him.
Today, students get a worksheet with 20 problems. Anthony does the first eight and puts his pencil down. He doesn't know how to do the rest and doesn't ask for help. Others around him never start the assignment. A group of girls tries to shut out the noise and work.
Baker says he doesn't know what else to do. He stays after school nearly every day, but few students show up. Their parents rarely come see him - even when he requests a conference on a report card, as he did last quarter with Anthony's mother. She hasn't gone in yet, though she says she intends to.
Many parents work long hours. Some shy away because they weren't successful in school themselves; others, especially in the suburbs, trust schools to get the job done. At affluent, majority-white schools, by contrast, parents put more pressure on both teachers and their children. They demand qualified teachers and college-prep curriculum, and "they have the political clout to get it," said Stuart Wells of Columbia. "It's not that [black] parents don't want these things for their kids. It's that they have less information and less political clout."
One night a few weeks ago, Anthony, who has a 2.24 grade-point average, confided in his mother that he's afraid his D in geometry will prevent him from becoming a computer engineer.
"I'm going to really need that, and that's the only subject I'm really doing bad at," he says later. "I want to go to college and be successful. I know I made mistakes, but now I'm trying to make it up."
Though Pratt is pleased with Randallstown's progress, she isn't taking any chances with her next-oldest child, 13-year-old Airon. After he graduates this spring from Deer Park Middle, she plans to send him to a Catholic high school. With her girls, 11-year-old Amanda and 9-year-old Amber, she'll wait to see about Randallstown.
"I refuse to send another child to that school without the full awareness that the school has totally changed," she says. "It's a work in progress."
Anthony supports the decision his mother made for his brother, saying he's proud that Airon is an A- and B- student.
"I hope he does well," he says. "I hope he does better than me."