At UMBC, it's cool to be black and smart


"Black Is Beautiful!" was the cry 20 years ago. Now it's an unabashed declaration: "Black Is Smart!" And proud of it.

At the University of Maryland Baltimore County, a major movement is on to to identify, reward and push onward young black scholars in science, mathematics and engineering.

The idea is to bury the notion that it isn't cool -- that it's a "white" thing -- to be smart and black. It is also to counter the idea that blacks succeed only as pro athletes and drug merchants.

Put aside for the moment all theories of how these warped notions came to be. Maybe they are part of the white conspiracy to keep blacks down. Think, rather, about the reality: Although on a national scale the gap between white and black academic achievement has narrowed (actually, black test scores have increased while white scores have stagnated), in the nation's metropolitan areas, blacks (and particularly black males) have fallen shockingly behind, so far behind that the real achievers are as scarce as. . . well, as scarce as white professional basketball players.

Blame it on society, blame it on a drug culture that affects so many young black men, blame it on a way of life that places little value on academic achievement. Those trying to reverse it aren't blaming anything or anyone. They're spending their energy trying to turn things around.

One of them is Freeman Hrabowski, the black executive vice president of UMBC. Three years ago, Hrabowski approached Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, of the Baltimore philanthropic family, with a proposition: Let me bring Maryland's brightest young, black high school graduates to my campus with scholarships, let us give them the best education they can get in science, mathematics and engineering and let us see what happens.

The Meyerhoffs agreed, laid out an initial $541,000, and other private and public money followed (including more from the Meyerhoffs). The Meyerhoff Scholarship Program is now a multi-million-dollar enterprise, and Hrabowski recently turned down a college presidency in California to continue running it.

Hrabowski started with 19 young men two years ago and expanded to 70 last year (adding about 26 young women). By now the number of Meyerhoff scholars at UMBC has become a critical mass. It has pushed the average Scholastic Aptitude Test score of blacks at the school to near 1,000, an unheard of accomplishment. (UMBC's overall SAT average is pushed up, too.) After two years, the Meyerhoff students are averaging 3.5 (of a possible 4.0) grade point average, and not one has dropped out.

A certain amount of modesty used to accompany such efforts, as though it were untoward to lavish such amounts on one race. Hrabowski, a mathematician who had moved to UMBC from Coppin State College, saw it as an emergency. Even the brightest of Maryland's black students, he says, were falling by the wayside, lacking knowledge of their potential and lacking assurance that it's all right to be smart, even brilliant.

"What we're creating is a community of scholars," he says. "We want to be as visible on this campus as the athletes, and we're accomplishing that. People say, 'There goes a Meyerhoff.' " It might be an easier task at UMBC, not known for its nationally ranked teams, but if Hrabowski makes his scholars the pride of the University of Maryland system, he might even make a dent at the athletic factory at College Park.

The program has nabbed a few scholars who would have been expected to leave Maryland for the Ivy League, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other more prestigious places. Two years ago, Hrabowski recruited Ahmad Ridley, Poly's valedictorian, who is studying this summer at the University of California at Berkeley. This year there was Melanie Smith, the Western High School valedictorian whom Hrabowski lured (like a basketball coach) by visiting her home in Baltimore. As the community grows and the students go back to their high schools "ambassadors," Hrabowski says, "they grow ever more self-confident. These are the future M.D.'s and Ph.D.'s in the country."

Hrabowski isn't the only black scholar trying to promote academic accomplishment among young African-Americans. Several Baltimore high school students have won national awards in ACT-SO (Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics), sponsored by the NAACP. (The Evening Sun's Other Voices page is publishing several of the local and national winners in the poetry and essay categories).

And Project 2000, the creation of Spencer Holland, director of the Center for Educating African-American Males at Morgan State University, exposes students at three city elementary schools to male volunteers who tutor, counsel and act as role models.

All of the programs are aimed at exposing young blacks to the idea that academic accomplishment is something of which the whole human race can be proud.

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