“For the last six years, we’ve told you to do more, do better. We’re never satisfied, right?” said John Johnson, an Ashburn father addressing the 18 students in dress shirts and suit jackets in the auditorium at Lunsford Middle School in Chantilly.
“Well, tonight,” he declared, “we are satisfied.”
He flashed through a slide show of the core members’ accomplishments: 100 percent graduation rate, 92 percent enrollment in Advanced Placement classes, a cumulative 3.7 grade-point average and a combined $1.3 million in college scholarships.
Then he estimated, only half jokingly, how much volunteer time the parents seated behind them had invested in their success: 1,173,266 hours.
The role parents perform is often played down among the many causes of the nation’s pervasive racial academic achievement gap. It’s sometimes seen as a distraction from improving under-performing schools and teachers. But many scholars say parents, or other adult role models, are vital to children’s academic success.
Hundreds of studies have documented how everything from the number of hours parents spend at their children’s school to the way they monitor television can be associated with academic success.For African American boys, parents can also play a crucial role in countering perceptions that they are more likely to be dropouts than valedictorians.
“You have to go out of your way to inoculate your kids against buying into those stereotypes,” said Ronald F. Ferguson, director of the achievement gap initiative at Harvard University, who is raising three black boys.
Many of the African American professionals in Ashburn thought they had stacked the decks in their children’s favor. They earned college degrees and good salaries. They bought homes in safe start-from-scratch neighborhoods and sent their children to gleaming high-performing schools.
But over time, they discovered that the achievement gap had followed them to the suburbs. In Loudoun, one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the country, African Americans score an average of 1,399 out of 2,400 points on the SAT, compared with 1,638 for white students. African American passing rates on state standardized tests were 10 points behind those of white students in reading and 16 points behind in math.
Worries crept in. Perhaps in a county where just 7 percent of its 65,000 students are black, their children were too isolated, with few teachers or classmates who looked similar.
Gabrielle Carpenter, the guidance director at Tuscarora High School, grew concerned that her son didn’t seem to see race. “We live in a society that sees race,” she said. “I didn’t want him to be naive or unequipped.”
By middle school, she and other black parents noticed that their sons were getting passed over for advanced math or honors classes or losing interest in school.