Schools chief aiming to cut minority gap
Superintendent makes raising black students'
achievement a priority; 'Disparities ... will be eliminated';
Smith's push, programs earn praise from parents and community
Baltimore Sun, September 10, 2002
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The Anne Arundel school superintendent stood in the sanctuary
of First Baptist Church in Annapolis - the 110-year-old heart
of the county's black community - and told black parents
something they already knew: The school system must do more
for their children.
"The disparities are well-documented and will - in the near
future - be eliminated," said Superintendent Eric J. Smith,
who, barely two months into his term as head of the county
school system, is part of a push by a number of suburban
districts to address the issue.
On Wednesday, Smith announced plans to funnel more minority
students into college-level classes and give them the support
they need to succeed. He has put in place new, proven reading
and math curricula at 14 elementary schools with high minority
Smith has promised the school board that he would reduce the
achievement gap - the gulf between test scores of whites and
blacks - to less than 10 percent on all measures by 2007. He
is so sure he can do it that he bet his $20,000 bonus on
"No one I've come across aspires to be mediocre," Smith told
the more than 100 parents and educators gathered Thursday
night at First Baptist, who murmured their assent. "People
aspire to greatness and to do wonderful things, and only stop
when they're beaten back."
Smith's steps to spur achievement come at a time of
soul-searching by school districts confronted with data
documenting persistent gaps in performance between minority
students and white students.
Baltimore County school officials recently unveiled a program
aimed at pushing underachieving high school students into
college-preparatory courses, and to provide teachers with
online diversity, multicultural and special-education
Harford County's school system has spent about $500,000 over
the past two years to close its minority achievement gap.
And in Howard County, the Comprehensive Plan for Accelerated
School Improvement focuses on the 15 schools with the lowest
test scores or the highest percentages of poor students.
"I think the achievement gaps ... are becoming very apparent,
and very glaring in some cases," said Martin L. Johnson,
director of the Maryland Institute for Minority Achievement
and Urban Education at the University of Maryland's College of
Education. "And I think that every school system is looking at
test data and seeing these gaps and ... beginning to realize
that something else needs to take place."
In Anne Arundel, Smith has excited a community frustrated by
lagging test scores and by a perceived inequity across county
schools. Even the brochure for Smith's talk at the church was
titled "The Dawn of a New Day."
"Things are about to change in Anne Arundel County, and
African-Americans are about to step up to the plate and play
the game all first-class citizens play," said Clemon H. Wesley
of RESPECT Inc., an umbrella organization for black groups in
In recent weeks, Smith has released data showing that black
students score more than 200 points below whites on the SAT,
take far fewer Advanced Placement classes and, at some
schools, lag almost 20 points below the school average on
reading and math tests.
Among the most striking disparities is the range of
college-level Advanced Placement courses offered by Anne
Arundel schools. Broadneck High, which is 87 percent white,
offers 24 AP classes. Meade High, which is 47 percent black,
Black students make up 18 percent of the county's high school
students, but account for 4 percent of those who take AP
"We don't need two school systems," said school board member
Eugene Peterson, who is black and whose daughter takes AP
courses at Meade High. "We need one school system."
Smith has created the label of "AP Certified High School,"
which he would apply to any school that offers 16 AP classes
and a support network for students and teachers. Enrollment in
the program is voluntary on the part of the school, but, Smith
adds, highly encouraged.
Certified schools will be required to offer the AVID - or
Advancement Via Individual Determination - program, which
provides academic and social support for students who have the
potential for college, but need a little push. Schools will
offer "Pacesetter" courses - advanced versions of core
academic classes that prepare students for AP work. And the
school system will begin paying for the cost of the AP exams
students take - about $80 each - in the spring of 2004. That,
principals said, should get even more students into AP
"We have a lot of kids who shy away from it because of the
cost," said David Hill, principal of Glen Burnie High School.
"It will take some of the kids who are sitting on the fence
and get them off the fence."
Smith's focus isn't limited to high schools. He says children
must know how to read by third grade. Some schools are getting
new reading programs, including the phonics-based Open Court
curriculum. At other schools, principals are getting data
broken down into more detail than they have ever seen before
to help target their efforts.
Smith's data book shows that at Arnold Elementary, for
example, black pupils scored 17 points lower than the school
average on standardized reading tests, and 18 points below on
African-American parents say such statistics confirm what they
have suspected about their schools: that the school system
needs to take drastic measures to help black children succeed.
And they say Smith is the right man for the job.
"I have a lot of confidence in him," Kathy Waters said after
Smith's talk at First Baptist. Waters has two children in the
school system and said, "I think we're on the right track."
Smith warned parents that he cannot do it alone. Families,
churches, businesses - all must get involved, he said.
"There's no way we can achieve what you expect without someone
turning off the TV, turning on the kitchen light and saying,
'Yup, you're gonna do your homework,'" he told parents.
Someone asked him about the challenges of education in a city
such as Annapolis, where many children come from public
housing and transient families.
"I say bring on all children," he answered. "We have an
opportunity here to make a statement about young people - from
the low-income to the affluent, from all races - to make a
statement that public education can and will be successful."
Sun staff writer Jackie Powder contributed to this article.