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Minorities' progress at UMBC recognized; National report tells of Meyerhoff program's support for students

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A national task force looking at the lack of achievement by top minority students has singled out the University of Maryland, Baltimore County as a success story, in a report released today.

"We are very pleased that people around the country are coming here to look at what we are doing in these areas," said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, UMBC's president. Hrabowski was a member of the 31-member task force that spent two years looking at the issue.

The report from the College Board focuses on African-American, Hispanic and American Indian students who come from relatively wealthy families with good educational backgrounds and high SAT scores, yet do not do as well as expected in college.

"If we can reach these students, then we can learn something about how to help all minority students," said L. Scott Miller, director of the task force. "And if we can't improve outcomes for these students, it's likely to be very hard going with less-advantaged students."

The report says colleges and universities must not be content with increasing minority enrollment, retention and graduation rates, but must put the same effort into "raising the academic achievement levels of underrepresented minorities -- including increasing the number of top minority students."

It calls on these schools to form consortia to share information on programs that work. The Meyerhoff Scholars program at UMBC is noted as one such program -- proof that top minority students can excel if given the right support.

"People at various institutions have found ways of doing this," said Eugene H. Cota-Robles, a professor emeritus of biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was co-chairman of the panel convened by the College Board, a New York-based institution known for writing the SAT exam.

"They've done this not by coddling or babying these people, but by building a structure, such as a demanding summer intellectual experience, and making sure that faculty assume more responsibility in the instruction of these students," he said.

Hrabowski said such ideas are behind the design of the Meyerhoff program. "At most universities, they are pleased if their African-American science students have a B average. We raise the bar with the Meyerhoffs. I tell them they should not be happy with an A, but that they should get a high A. They live up to those expectations."

He said that educating these high-achieving minority students will provide a core of black faces in the sciences who can be "role mentors" for the next generation.

"I used to hear a lot of questions about what I was doing working with these smart students," Hrabowski said of the Meyerhoff program, which offers full four-year scholarships to about 50 students a year, primarily African-Americans, planning to major in the sciences.

"The thinking was that these students were going to be fine, that I should focus on those that weren't doing as well," Hrabowski said. "I don't hear that as much anymore. When I go to talk to churches now, they want to hear about these students. They are inspired by them."

The report highlights three successful programs -- the Meyerhoff; one at the University of California at Berkeley that focuses on freshman calculus; and the curriculum at the historically black Xavier University of Louisiana -- and notes that they share several characteristics: a concern with academic and social development, a stress on scholastic excellence, an emphasis on a successful freshman year, and a push to develop strong relationships with both faculty and peer groups.

"The most successful programs have been carefully engineered and often have been modified, again and again, based on internal assessments of their results," the report states. "The task force firmly believes that the experience of these programs provides evidence that much can be done to ensure that most minority students have a genuine opportunity to reach their academic potential."

To increase the number of top minority students, the report recommends efforts at every level of education, starting with preschool, to deal with minority underachievement, which cuts across all income levels. The report points to the success of the Calvert School curriculum at Barclay and Carter Godwin Woodson elementary schools in Baltimore.

Hrabowski said there are many reasons for the underachievement of these top minority students.

"Some of it is the culture," he said. "Being smart is not cool. In some cases it is seen as being 'white.' It is difficult to battle the music and those images."

Hrabowski said that one of the first messages he delivers to the Meyerhoff scholars is to work together, something new to many of them who might have been the only minority students in their advanced high school classes.

"I tell them if they get an A and someone else in the class gets an A+, go work with that person no matter what color they are," he said.

Cota-Robles, who is Mexican-American, underscored that. He noted in his microbiology lectures that the minority students were usually grouped at the back of the class.

"Faculty want to work with promising students, but too often when they reach out to those students, minorities are not engaged," he said. "They are in the class, they are interested, but it is necessary for me as the faculty member to reach out to them to make sure they are actively engaged."

Hrabowski said educating a core of high-achieving minorities in the sciences, people who will become professors at top research universities, can change the perception of both whites and minorities of the possibilities.

"When I go into an airport now, I always point out to my white friends that almost everyone traveling is white and almost everyone pushing a cart with a broom is black," he said. "We just think that's the way it is, just like they thought in the 19th century that blacks being slaves was the way it was supposed to be.

"So now when we see a group of top scientists and only see one or two African-American faces, we think that's just the way it is. But that's not the way it has to be."

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