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Aiming to close a gap in education; Schools chief targets lower achievement by minority groups


Anne Arundel County School Superintendent Carol S. Parham is searching for answers to a puzzle that has frustrated educators across the country for decades: Why do minorities receive lower grades, test more poorly and get suspended more than white classmates?

Parham, an African-American who heads a mostly white school district, recently called in black teachers, community leaders and administrators to ask for help in finding ways to close the gap between minority and white students.

"I'm not looking for a whole new set of things," she said. "I am looking to better use what we already have and maybe find some new strategies."

Parham is not the first superintendent to deal with poor performance by minorities and not the first to form a task force to look for solutions. Baltimore County School Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione announced in November that he was appointing a task force to study student achievement, including the gulf between whites and minorities.

In September, the Maryland State Department of Education released a report detailing the performance of most minorities compared with white students statewide.

In 1996-1997, blacks, who make up slightly more than one-third of the state's students, accounted for more than half of high school dropouts, as well as more than half of student suspensions.

Large gaps also exist in test scores. On the 1997 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, Asian females posted the highest scores, with 59.2 percent performing satisfactorily. Black males were the lowest-scoring group, with 14.7 percent earning a satisfactory score. Elementary and secondary school tests showed similar results.

The problem is likewise acute in Anne Arundel County, where African-Americans, who constitute 18 percent of the 73,000-student enrollment, account for the highest number of dropouts, and where black males were the lowest scoring group on the MSPAP.

Little success

Experiments to change those statistics -- hiring extra teachers with federal money, new reading and math programs, raising standards for all students -- have been disappointing.

Nowhere have educators succeeded in eliminating the gap between whites and minorities or finding a conclusive explanation for the gap.

That has not kept educators from debating competing opinions and paying for programs that promise immediate results.

"There is an inordinate amount of time spent on infighting in education, partly because no one is exactly sure about how to improve things and reach children," said Michael Nakkula, assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who works on minority programs in Boston public schools.

One such program, the 12-year-old Accelerated Schools Project designed by Henry Levin of Stanford University, is based on the theory that all students will excel if given exciting and creative things to do -- the kinds of things normally reserved for only the best students.

"Students in gifted and talented programs become engaged in learning," Levin says. "The traditional way of remediation is boring and often referred to as 'drill and kill.' It's repeating the same things over and over again. There are constant discipline problems because the kids get bored."

About 1,000 schools in 41 states use Levin's $15,000-a-year program, and many have reported improvements among minorities.

Hopkins program

Another program that has shown promise in 1,100 schools in 45 states, including Baltimore County's, is Success For All. Designed by the Johns Hopkins University for elementary schools with mostly poor children, it is based on the idea that everyone can learn to read if worked with young enough so that problems are caught and extra work assigned. It, too, is costly, about $70,000 to start up and as much as $30,000 annually.

There is some question that programs such as these, modeled for urban schools with big minority populations, would work in suburban and mostly white Anne Arundel schools.

"They would work," contends Steven Ross, professor of educational research at the University of Memphis. "The important thing is that the schools and the community pick a model or components of the models that suit their needs."

Suburban schools might use such parts of the overall program as extended-day scheduling, peer tutoring, year-round schooling or summer school classes to boost minority learning.

Levin agreed: "What you do in a district with a smaller disadvantaged population is the same thing any other district would do. Does it mean you are leveling kids off? No, because the kids that are more advanced will move further on in the topic anyway."

Cost could be a barrier to the use of such programs in Anne Arundel County, where the school budget was slashed by $9 million this year.

On Jan. 20, Parham will unveil her fiscal year 2000 budget, the first under County Executive Janet S. Owens, who has promised to supply more money for education.

What has to change?

Parham has said she thinks it is unnecessary to rip apart the curriculum to boost minority performance. She has given each member of her task force a copy of the state minority achievement report to use as a guide.

Barbara Dezmon, chairwoman of the Maryland State Education Multicultural Advisory Council, who worked on the report, urged "systemic reform."

She said, "It is up to the individual jurisdictions to invest in effective practices that will help solve the problems and close the gap. Just adding on programs without changing the system entirely, we will end up with much of what we have now -- a lot of work with little improvements."

Thomas Florestano, a school board member and former president of Anne Arundel Community College, suggested that the task force come up with ways to make education a priority for minorities.

Succeeding in school has to be made a priority at home, he said, noting the example of one middle class community outside Cleveland where more than half the students are black but accounted for 82 percent of the district's dropouts.

"This committee has to figure out a way to make achievement a positive thing," he said. "White families have overcome that through years of cultural change. If blacks move to upper-class neighborhoods, is the environment going to help learning? Well, that showed that academic achievement is a negative in the black community, and that is sad."

While students are not members of the superintendent's task force, they have ideas about improving minority academic performances.

"School is all about what you put into it," said Annapolis senior JoRon Johnson. "If you don't produce, then you won't get anything out of it. And if you don't have anyone encouraging you to succeed and if you don't know that someone cares about what you are doing, you won't do well."

His parents, he said, did not attend college, but they pushed him, and he has been accepted by Frostburg State University, Howard University and George Washington University.

A classmate, Paul Comas, said absentee fathers and problems at home contribute to low achievement among minorities. His parents also encouraged him to succeed in school, and he has been accepted by Columbia University, where he plans to major in electrical engineering.

"In high school, it's the turning point. You can say, 'All right, enough of this,' " he said. "Even though there is a stereotype, you realize that it's time to start studying and doing homework, no matter what."

Pub Date: 1/10/99

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