Council looks to close test-score gap

June 12, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

Statistics can be scary. Just ask Mike Dunham and Shunika Hamilton. When the two South Hagerstown High School students saw a report showing the achievement gap between white and black students, they were concerned enough to give up part of their summer vacation to do something about it.

They will spend one day every other week putting together something called the Diversity Achievement Council. The idea grew out of the work of the school system's Minority Achievement Task Force and a similar program in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Dunham said he was motivated to act after looking at student tests scores and seeing "how big the gap was between white students and minority students."

It doesn't have to be that way, said Dunham, who, in addition to being a student government officer and an honor student, is also African-American.


"I realize that I can achieve high standards and I push myself to do so," he said. Other students of color need to be told the same thing, he said.

Last September, Paul Slocumb, co-author of "Removing the Mask: Giftedness in Poverty," told the county's Minority Achievement Task Force that black kids who get good grades are often accused of "acting white."

Asked if they saw that attitude among their other black students, Dunham and Hamilton agreed that it does exist among some students of color.

"I do see that. I don't necessarily believe that," Dunham said.

Hamilton said that she feels the problem stems from the fact that some people of color do not think independently, but instead want to follow the group's lead.

But, she said, "I don't follow what all my friends do."

Like Dunham, Hamilton is also an honor student and says that she earned a 3.6 average this past year.

"I got a 3.6, because band brought it down. I got B's in band," she said, almost apologetically.

The students' efforts to change both white and black students' beliefs about achievement will continue next fall with freshman orientation.

"They're the future. We're having a freshman week to help them get adjusted to the school so they won't feel all alone," Dunham said.

During that week, they'll meet in groups of as few as 10 students to talk, he said and tell students that they "don't have to be afraid to pursue excellence in school and that it's not 'acting white.'"

Those meeting won't be with only black students, Dunham said, because the problem of poor academic achievement crosses racial lines at South.

The school has a high percentage of students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. That is a frequently used measure of poverty and students from lower-income families frequently don't do well academically.

"Our main goal is to bring the school together," he said.

They may actually tutor students who need help, Hamilton said, or they may direct them to other sources for that.

Asked what satisfaction they'll get from donating their time, Dunham said that "what would satisfy me would be to help a child and to know that I made the difference between them getting a C and failing."

Hamilton said her satisifaction would come from knowing that there are other children out there who can achieve because of the council's efforts.

"It's not just about what I need, but what everybody needs," she said.

Asked about her own career ambitions, Hamilton said she would like to be a pediatric surgeon. Her sister had a heart murmur and her brother had a cyst on his head and she said she would like to help children who have such ailments.

Dunham said he would like to run for elected office. Next year he'll be president of South High's student government and vice president of the countywide student government.

"I ran for both of those offices because I wanted to give back," he said.

Carl Brindley, a Student Achievement Specialist at South who researched the Shaker Heights program, said that South's council is already attracting donors who want to help.

That's good, because author Slocumb's message was that unless this community comes together to break that generational cycle of low achievement, Washington County will never have the educated workforce today's jobs require.

What we will have is an increasing number of people who require taxpayer-financed services. Supporting groups like the Diversity Achievment Council should not only make us feel good now, but save us money in the long run.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor for The Herald-Mail newspapers.

The Herald-Mail Articles