Prince George’s schools, UMBC are helping black students succeed

Courtland Milloy
Columnist July 1

Donald Richardson graduated in May from the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He majored in mathematics, was president of the school’s mathematics honors society and crew team. This month, he’ll head off to the University of Michigan to work toward a doctorate in industrial engineering.

He’s also a graduate of Suitland High School in Prince George’s County.

Let’s face it, when you hear “Prince George’s County,” academic achievement is not the first thing that comes to mind. And yet, there are far more young black men like Richardson than like the ones we so often read about in newspaper crime briefs.

Inundated with reports of black pathology and deprived of everyday good news about black people, we often assume the worst about ourselves. When Maryland school officials announced this year that black students were making academic progress, some blacks could not contain their disbelief. They went on a tear, accusing teachers of inflating grades and cheating on tests.

Never mind that two Suitland High graduates made near-perfect scores on the Medical College Admission Test and on the Graduate Record Examination, which is required for entrance into most graduate schools.


Donald Richardson at his UMBC graduation this year. (Courtesy of Donald Richardson)

“Prince George’s schools have lot to be proud of,” said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the prestigious UMBC.

If we really want to know what it takes for black students to do well in school, talk to the ones who are doing well — instead of just harping on the failures.

“What helped me at UMBC was being assigned to a study group, learning how to collaborate and work as a team,” said Richardson, 22. “It was a big transition from public school, where everybody was trying to make it on their own. Everybody was competing instead of trying to help each other.”

Cooperation instead of competition, that’s an intriguing idea. The key to making it work?

“It’s a trust thing,” Richardson said. “In a group, you have to rely on each other to get the job done.”

You might think from all the reports about black-on-black conflict that it’s impossible for black people — especially black males — to trust one another.

Hrabowski has been using the cooperative approach to learning at UMBC for nearly all of his 20 years as head of the school.

“What we are doing is building community,” Hrabowski said. “We are using examples from real companies and real group projects where students have tasks to carry out individually but still work as part of a group. You end up with everybody wanting to be the best they can be and willing to stay up five or six hours to achieve things they never thought were possible.”

The results have been impressive. For instance, UMBC turns out more black physician-scientists — with combined MD-PhD degrees — than any other university in the country.

UMBC is also one of the most innovative universities in its approach to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. The school draws students from 150 countries, although the bulk come from Maryland — especially Montgomery, Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties.

A lot of credit goes to Hrabowski, who is widely regarded as one of the country’s best university presidents. At a recent retreat for school principals in Prince George’s, Hrabowski encouraged them to stay passionate about education.

“Passion can be contagious, and we want our students to be excited about being smart,” he recalled telling them. “It’s not just about getting access to college. It’s about succeeding after they get there.”

That requires lots of preparation, and it starts long before high school — learning how to study and how to study long and hard.

“A guy had transferred to UMBC, and after about 10 months, he asked where were the parties,” Hrabowski said. “Finally, he came to understand that the party is in the library. That’s where people are laughing and eating and discussing new ideas. The party is in the studying; that’s the essence of fun around here.”

Richardson agrees.

“We would have review sessions and take turns hosting them,” he said. “Working together you achieve more than you would if you were working alone. It became easier to ask for help when I realized that everybody needs help sometimes.”

When he does get that doctorate in engineering, Richardson would like to use his skills to help make the nation’s health-care system more efficient. For the rest of the summer, he’ll be serving as a counselor for incoming UMBC freshmen, making sure that they have the right study skills.

“To whom much is given, much is expected,” he said.

That’s good news.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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