When it comes to closing the achievement gap between minority students and their white counterparts, the Howard County Public School System is doing some promising things, said State Superintendent Lillian Lowery.
"The partnerships with Harvard University to focus professional development and to dissect the data really opens our eyes to something other districts could do," she said.
Lowery was part of a panel — including Howard County Superintendent Renee Foose and Jon Fullerton, executive director of Harvard University's Center for Education Policy Research — at a forum Thursday evening at St. John Baptist Church in Columbia to discuss existing achievement gaps and ways those gaps can be closed.
The forum, "Delivering the Promise of Preparation: A Call to Action," was held in partnership with the African American Community Roundtable, a group made up of representatives from 25 organizations, churches and government departments in the county.
After the forum, Lowery said "the fact the schools have come together (with the roundtable), embracing the community where gaps exist and make partnerships there, is a model all our districts could benefit from."
The church was filled to its 570-seat capacity, and the Rev. Robert Turner, senior pastor at St. John, said an overflow room also was filled. Approximately 800 people attended the forum.
Throughout the evening, Lowery, Foose and Fullerton outlined successes at the state and county level, highlighted achievement gaps on test scores — gaps that have persisted over time despite gains in student achievement across the board — and ways the school system could close those gaps.
"Education is not just about assessments," Foose said. "There's a whole other domain there, other factors that play into this. ... What we're focusing on in Howard County is creating a level of energy in our children. We have to develop their hope. … They have to envision success and they have to realize they can get there from here. If they don't realize that, what we're doing is truly just mechanical."
Questions asked through moderators were often pointed. Concerns were raised that black students are being systematically left out of AP courses. Foose said it was her goal to increase the number of students taking AP courses and to make sure students were better prepared for those classes.
When asked what the process is for a student to be placed in an AP course, Foose answered "interest and desire." The audience vocally disagreed.
"I hear you," Foose said. "We have to open access (to the courses)."
Turner said he knew what the problem was.
"The teachers don't share the same interest," he said. "I'm bombarded throughout the year … with parents coming to me and asking, 'can you do something?' We're complaining to our teachers, to our principals, (to get students into AP classes) and they feel they have to beg, borrow or steal, plead and beg."
Foose said she was disheartened to think black students still had limited access to advance courses.
"If you tell me it's happening, I believe it's happening," she said. "I'm going to stop it. I want your children in AP courses. It's a matter of setting expectations, and I want your children's success as much as you do."
The evening also included the students' perspective, which illustrated disparities and successes as well.
Marc Fleming, a junior at Atholton High School, and Emma Hughes, a senior at Wilde Lake High School, both spoke to their experiences as black students in county schools. Fleming said that while he was in AP and G/T classes, only eight other black students were in his seven classes, which made him feel "isolated" at times. Hughes said when she took the G/T placement tests in third grade, she didn't make the cut, but was put into advanced classes because a teacher "took a chance" on her.
The forum ended with a call to action from Larry Walker, deputy pastor at Celebration Church and former Board of Education candidate, who said the success of county schools masks "entrenched disparities in achievement.
"There are long-standing gaps in achievement that exist for African American and Hispanic students," he said. "This must change. It must change. Our students get one shot at a quality education. … It takes a village. We are the village."