Black leaders charged school officials in Alexandria yesterday with discriminating against blacks by focusing mainly on white students' needs, by cutting programs designed to help minorities, and by subtly lowering black students' own expectations.
The charges came at a press conference held in response to Alexandria school Superintendent Robert W. Peebles' announcement last week that black students lagged behind whites in standardized test scores by an average of 37 percentile points.
"Because of political pressure, Alexandria public schools are designed to educate white students," said Melvin Miller, a member of the Northern Virginia Branch of the Washingon Urban League. "The school board responds to the needs of white, upper-class students," he said, because they listen to those most vocal in the community -- wealthy, white political activists.
School Board Chairman Lou Cook called the discrimination charges "insulting" and nonproductive. Cook said the board has tried hard to ensure than no remedial, tutorial or summer school programs were cut, and, if any were eliminated, it was purely because of budget constraints.
Cook did, however, acknowledge that some teachers unfairly expect less from black students than from their white classmates, and thus foster low self-confidence among blacks, which in turn results in lower performance.
"It is wrong to expect any less from blacks. But because this is not a perfect world, yes, some teachers do," Cook said.
The Urban League members called yesterday for schools to take four actions: designate raising the scores of blacks as a top priority; allocate funds and resources to address the problem; appoint a special community task force to monitor progress in closing the test scores' gap, and expand tutorial and remedial programs.
At a convocation of teachers and administrators marking the beginning of the new school year yesterday, Peebles said "some vestiges" of discrimination remain in his school system, as they do around the country.
Peebles emphasized that such an admission heightens the burden now on schools to eliminate discriminatory attitudes and address black underachievement.
"It's unfortunate we still have vestiges of the old days and old ways in Alexandria," Peebles said. "Some Alexandrians, both black and white, still assume that poor kids -- black, poor kids, specifically -- cannot learn; that they cannot succeed in school. This must change . . . . We must assume that every child can learn."
John Smith, a staff member of the House Committee on Education and Labor, said yesterday at the press conference that schools nationwide, not just Alexandria schools, "are approaching a point where we need some massive intervention and resources" to close the gap between the races in test performance.
Smith, a local Urban League member, said that he has seen the racial disparity problem "being met head-on" in states such as Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Blacks and whites are equally competitive in schools in those states and others, Smith said, where there is one common bond: administrators do not allow outside factors, such as a student's race, poverty level, or family life, to interfere with what occurs inside the school.
"When a ghetto kid and a white kid walk in the school door, they are treated equally. The same is expected of both of them," Smith said.
While many education experts attribute the racial disparity in test performance to the fact that the poverty rate for blacks is triple that of whites, and the black unemployment rate is double, Smith and Peebles yesterday cautioned educators on using those statistics as excuses.
They said that while economic factors are meant to help explain why blacks have lagged behind whites on measured tests of achievement, they are not to be interpreted as meaning blacks and whites cannot perform equally.
Unlike many Alexandria black students, many white children come from homes in which books overflow library shelves and parents motivate, coach and encourage their academic endeavors, Peebles said. The task before the schools and community now is to provide the same advantages and encouragement for all students, he said.
Lynnwood G. Campbell Jr., one of the three black members of the nine-member School Board, said he would like to make it mandatory for all students to meet regularly with a school counselor, who would encourage them to outline their career goals.
"I have walked around the schools and have asked [black] students what they were going to do after graduation," Campbell said. "Too many of them say 'I have no idea.' It's this lack of motivation that we have to address."