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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.

'Eye of the beholder'

When Alison Carr signed up for the group at her daughter's school, she had no idea that she'd end up in a testy conversation about O.J.

The yellow flier promoting the study circles at Rosemary Hills Elementary School had arrived in her child's backpack, asking: "Wouldn't it be nice if education could be free of racial and ethnic barriers?"

Since the election of the nation's first African American president, the 45-year-old Carr has thought more than usual about race. She's white and works from home as a freelance architect. She wondered what fears and nonverbal messages she was passing along to her children about other people.

Kids have an ability to sniff out their parents' hang-ups, Carr said, and her children - daughter Ruby, 6, and sons Luke, 10, and Will, 12 - are old enough to sense hers. The study circle would allow her to meet other parents at the Silver Spring school. And maybe she could forge new friendships across racial lines.

The school system is hosting 20 study circles. There were 54 last year, including the one at Rosemary Hills that included Carr, two other white mothers, two African American mothers, a white father, three black immigrants from Ethiopia and the West Indies, and two Hispanic mothers who had immigrated from Colombia.

Landesman and his co-facilitator, Ruby Rubens, pulled out a long piece of butcher paper for the first assignment. Rubens, a 77-year-old African American woman who helps oversee the study circles, explained that they would create a cultural timeline. She began with a story about working in a Social Security office in the South in the late 1950s.

"There were a few of us blacks, and one black woman - she was very, very fair-skinned. She would go to lunch with the white secretaries, and they would go to this one restaurant that didn't allow blacks. They didn't know she was black, so she could eat there. It brought home to me the illusion of race," Rubens said. "It changed my perception of racial difference because race is all in the eye of the beholder.

"All right, just grab a marker."

The participants fanned out to mark their own dates.

The conversations often were sparked by exercises similar to those in diversity training sessions. In an exercise examining stereotypes, each person was given two Post-it notes and asked to write how others viewed their racial group and how they view themselves. A Hispanic woman said that others assume she's a "loudmouth," and one black mother wrote down "troublemaker."

The discussion touched Carr. "It's so sad that we all go around thinking people feel that way about us," she said. By then, it was the fifth session, and she was ready to talk: "There's something I haven't shared with you," Carr said. "Before I moved here, I was mugged by two black men."

The men and women sat still as Carr described how in 1995 two tall black men tried to drag her into a car one night as she walked to a bus stop while she was in college in Chicago. The attack was interrupted when a resident heard her screams and stepped on to his porch.

For three years, she was afraid of all tall black men, she said. The fear remained when she and her husband moved into their colonial in Silver Spring. As much as they told each other they wanted the kids to grow up in a diverse neighborhood, Carr said that fear, confusion and guilt over lingering biases swept over her when she first saw the community's racial mix.

Carr's comfort level improved as she got to know her neighbors, she said. But she had been afraid to talk about that fear, afraid that others would think she was racist.

Murray, the black lawyer, was among the first to speak: "I'm so sorry that happened to you," she said.

Learning to trust

Tension and tears are common during the sessions, but Landesman said the program, which receives a share of the school district's $1.99 million community outreach budget, has survived cuts because of what's at stake.

During one session, Landesman passed out two sheets with bar graphs on the front and back. The first chart showed Rosemary Hills' ratio of teachers to students by race: about 75 percent of teachers are white, compared with 64 percent of students. The next page was more jarring: 49 percent of white students and 67 percent of Asian students had been identified as "gifted and talented," but 7.7 percent of Hispanic students and 3.6 percent of African Americans had been recommended for the program.

The facilitators asked: Why would an achievement gap exist at such an early age?

Expectations, said Adriana Navia-Lopez, one of the parents. "I think this is especially true for the Hispanic children," she said. "The teachers have low expectations for them, and they are not given the same opportunities as the Asian and white students. I don't think it is discrimination."

By their last night together, group members were eager to write a plan to help address the problem. The parents whittled their proposed changes to three themes: improved parental involvement, more schoolwide events that would bring students of all races and socio-economic groups together, and better parent-teacher relationships. (They have since begun a parent-to-parent mentoring program, and parents in the group made a video to teach school officials what they learned.)

Often, the study circles want to get to the problem-solving stage sooner in the process, Landesman said. But on the last day of the Rosemary Hills group, Landesman asked: "What do you think we would have missed if we went straight to action?"

"We wouldn't have been as invested," Carr said.

"We would have had limited perceptions about others' viewpoints," said assistant principal Leslie Zimmerman, who sat in on the group.

Holly Gross, co-president of the PTA, seemed to sum up why the difficult early days had been so important. "We wouldn't have trusted each other," she said.

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