Montgomery parents' 'study circles' aim to close the gap on student achievement

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 12:31 AM

Fourteen parents sat in the cafeteria of a Silver Spring elementary school last fall talking about race. The discussion had been mostly light-hearted, until Teresa Murray brought up O.J. Simpson.

Murray recounted how, as a second-year student at George Washington Law School, she was in class watching as the jury foreman in the 1995 trial read the "not guilty" verdict. She and the other black students cheered, she recalled. The white students were upset. Heated words were exchanged. Class was suspended.

"It was at that moment I said, 'Oh, my God, this is still here, even with educated, liberal whites,' " Murray said during a meeting of parents to deal with issues of race in Montgomery County schools.

As she spoke, Brian Egan's cheeks turned red. "Did you really think he was not guilty or that he was getting screwed?" he asked calmly. "What I really want to know, as a white guy: Were you really cheering for justice?"

The school cafeteria where Murray and Egan had gathered with other parents was so quiet that cicadas could be heard through an open window.

This was a conversation that the Montgomery school system has asked parents to join to talk about race. The groups are aimed at addressing the gap in student achievement, which shows up on nearly every standardized test in the country: White and Asian students score significantly higher than their black and Hispanic peers.

Superintendent Jerry D. Weast hoped the gatherings would push parents, students and staffs to address the achievement gap and its causes. John Landesman, a white man from New Jersey, was recruited to lead the effort because of his experience in helping other communities talk about race.

What began as a student-focused effort eight years ago is centered around the conversations among parents who meet two hours a week for six weeks. As a result of the program, called Study Circles, many schools have revived their parent-teacher associations, school administrators hear from a wider range of parents and school officials are holding study circles.

Other schools have started diversity clubs that encourage students from different backgrounds to sit together at lunch, and some have begun to promote racial parity in gifted and talented programs.

Montgomery's record participation of African American and Hispanic students in Advanced Placement tests has brought the system accolades, with credit given to the money that school officials have spent on closing the gaps and the school-level focus on discussing issues of race.

Mark Clark, a business management professor at American University who is helping to lead a study circle group at Flower Valley Elementary in Rockville, has found "magic" in the conversations. "Yes, we want the students to achieve," he said, "but honestly, even if it is just the dialogue that occurs and people gain understanding of one another, we have actually achieved a large portion of our goal."

The goal, Landesman said, is to help parents understand the role that race plays in American life, including education. "I don't expect people to change a lifetime of thinking, but I do think people start becoming more curious," he said.

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