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Students discuss solutions to closing the achievement gap between blacks, whites

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 17, 2009 - Samantha Buress began her sophomore year at Hazelwood Central High School last Thursday with a 4.0 average and a belief that she'll become a good lawyer one of these days. Besides plans to join the student council and the school choir, the 15-year-old intends to continue helping classmates struggling with English, math and science. That's her solution to the achievement gap, an issue about which she and many other students have strong opinions.

The energy and success of high-performing African-American students like Buress get lost every fall with news that test scores of blacks as a group lag far behind those of other minorities and whites in Missouri public schools.

According to the most recent Missouri Achievement Program test scores, 30 percent of African-American students were proficient in English. Nearly 62 percent of Asians, 57 percent of whites, 51 percent of Native Americans and 38 percent of Hispanics earned acceptable scores on the test.

In addition, 23 percent of African Americans made sufficient progress in math, behind rates of 65 percent for Asians, 54 percent for whites, 44 percent of Native Americans and 36 percent of Hispanics. If these trends continue, African-American students will lag the most in Missouri in 2014, the year that the federal No Child Left Behind law says all students must be proficient in English and math.

Buress lives with her mother, Jacqueline Buress, a single parent who has two grown sons and works as a warehouse manager. Daughter Samantha graduated from McKinley Classical Junior Academy in St. Louis in 2008 before her mother moved to St. Louis County and enrolled her in the Hazelwood School District.

"Making good grades hasn't been hard for me," Samantha Buress said.

Closing the achievement gap

Parents and educators have plenty to say about the achievement gap, but seldom are students asked about it. The Beacon asked a number of students, including some involved in the Cultural Leadership program, about their views. Buress, for one, says that news reports about the achievement test do little justice to students who are beating the odds.

"I feel like we're all being stereotyped," she says. "We're all put in the same group. Everybody seems to focus on the kids who don't do good, and they don't pay attention to those of us who excel."

But that doesn't keep her from reaching out to low-performing students she has encountered in both city and county neighborhoods and in her church.

"There are students whose parents aren't really involved in their lives," she says. "A lot of these students are stressed because their parents tell them they're never going to be anything. I want them to understand that just because their parents say things like that, it doesn't mean they can't reach their goals."

She says her own mother always encouraged her "to follow my dreams and know that I can achieve if I just put my mind to it."

Jacqueline Bures agrees with her daughter that "some parents don't support their children like they ought to, but I also think that some of it also comes from children not applying themselves. My daughter is an awesome child who always wants to help others students who ask her for help. That's what I encourage."

No one solution to closing achievement gap

Likewise, Drake Hall, 16, a junior at Webster Groves High School, suggests that schools aren't the problem.

"Closing the achievement gap really starts at home," he says. "Children need to learn to understand the importance of education. How much pressure your parents put on you about the importance of making good grades and strive for the best things in life is important."

One day recently, some students from Parkway North and Central high schools seemed puzzled when asked about the achievement gap. Their initial response suggested that many students look at their black peers as individuals rather than lumping them all as low achievers. These students said the gap wasn't unique to African Americans but was common among any youngsters lacking drive or parental encouragement.

On the other hand, Keilah Johnson, 17, a senior at Fort Zumwalt West High School in O'Fallon, Mo., blames students, and she adds that schools do not do enough to engage low-performing students. Her school district, in St. Charles County, is not in the St. Louis and St. Louis County school desegregation program. Blacks comprise about 6 percent of Fort Zumwalt's students and, like those in other districts, don't perform as well as whites on the state achievement test.

Johnson thinks schools could close the gap partly by tailoring lessons to material that speaks to these students' cultural experiences. In language arts, for example, she says schools could help black students to pay attention by introducing more literary works addressing African-American themes and experiences.

The other problem, she says, is that "education is not cool in this generation. There's a lack of drive for education. I'm noticing it, and it worries me. We need presidents, lawyers and doctors. But no one cares about being a president, a lawyer or a doctor."

Understanding the value of education

Julia Moskowitz, 17, a senior at Ladue High School, says the problem is much deeper: "I don't think our society values education enough. I think a lot of times, you know, we hate schools. But kids need to be in school and not think of it as something negative. It's really important to make this experience more comfortable for us."

Some youngsters do not buy the argument that investing more money in education will close the gap.

"We can't solve it that way," says Stephanie Holzbauer, 17, a senior at Villa Duschesne. "The one thing that would really make a difference is putting more good teachers in the classrooms in schools where the gap exists."

Winnie Hawker, 17, a senior at Webster Groves High School, offers another explanation.

"I've noticed in some classrooms the races are treated differently by teachers," she says. "They don't acknowledge (African-American students); the students aren't called on in class for the most part. If you are perceived as a non-achiever, then you're not going to achieve."

African-American students, for the most part, tended to blame the gap on economics. They pointed to friends living in homes where parents are unemployed and so overwhelmed with other problems that they don't put much emphasis on school achievement.

"A lot of people say it starts at home," says Carlton Wilcoxson, 17, a senior at Ladue High School. "I know that in a lot of black homes of families and friends, you can't find even one book. Simple as that."

On the other hand, he says, this problem, as well as indifferent teachers, is no excuse for low achievement.

"My mother, who is a teacher, always told me there are going to be bad teachers in your life and that you're black and are going to be discriminated against. But she also told me that's no excuse for you not to succeed."

Deciding to be a success

At Ladue High, Wilcoxson says, an African-American teacher pulled together black students and held discussions at school with them and black men who are doctors, lawyers and corporate executives. Wilcoxson says the students were surprised to these men acknowledge that they "messed around their freshmen and sophomore years" and conceded that education hadn't been their first priority at the time. The candor helped the students understand what they had to do to get ahead.

"If you want to close the gap, you have to reach out, really reach out, to students," he says. That involves achievers doing more than telling students, "I can help you with this one assignment after school."

Still another viewpoint comes from Thomas Bullock, 17, a senior at Ladue High School. He argues that the achievement gap can't be blamed on poverty; some African Americans in his school come from wealthy families and still do not score as well as whites of similar backgrounds, he says.

His views recall anecdotal information about the tension between cultural identity and high achievement among some black children. An example might be a case of a bright young student refusing to enroll in a gifted program because that would remove him from other black students in the school.

The late John Ogbu, a cultural anthropologist who taught at the University of California at Berkeley, explored that phenomenon in a study of black students at Shaker Heights, an affluent suburb of Cleveland. There, he suggested, the stigma of being accused of "acting white" led students to turn to alternatives -- baggy pants, hip hop and rap music and slang -- to counter what they perceived as white behavior. Ogbu argues that the resistance to "acting white" also leads many affluent black children from studying hard and performing as well as their white counterparts.

Amy Stuart Wells, a Columbia University teacher who studied the local desegregation program, says student attitude has made all the difference in the world to the success of the program. She notes that many black students have been success stories partly because they were willing to "endure the racial and cultural insensitivity of whites in the suburbs in order to thrive there."

Black transfer students who don't succeed have strong feelings about racial inequality and "often come to their suburban campuses full of rage."

Other students, such as Buress, the high-performing Hazelwood sophomore, are staying focused on the basics and a career. Three years before graduation, she's already thinking about where she'd like to be a decade from now.

"I'm going to be a lawyer," she says matter-of-factly.

So law is one of the areas you're thinking about, she's asked.

"No," she replies. "I am going to be a lawyer. There's no other option for me."

Case closed.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.