An assembly held last month to kick off a special booster program for black students at Jeffers Hill Elementary School in Columbia has drawn angry charges of segregation from some white parents and created what the principal calls a source of mistrust.
In an effort to defuse the controversy, the school's principal Fredrika Hill Tuesday night asked the Jeffers Hill PTA board to participate in a special task force to serve as a liaison between the school and the parents. The group would be composed of parents from different ethnic backgrounds and the school's planning and management team.
During a sometimes tense but frank discussion, many of the 50 parents at the meeting expressed support of the goals of the Black Student Achievement Program but questioned the implementation of the program.
Barry Oehl, a parent of a Jeffers Hill student, said the program was "quite repugnant" because it emphasized racial distinctions. "We came here to Columbia because it was homogenous. We told our children not to judge people by the color of their skin, but the color of their hearts. I have a problem with a school system that circumvents what I teach -- ignore color of skin."
The controversy, which one parent has said has stirred "lots of phone calling and whispering in hallways," stems from a Feb. 5 assembly at Jeffers Hill Elementary to mark the kickoff of the Black Student Achievement Program at the Tamar Drive school.
Started two years ago, the program is now offered at nine Howard County public schools. Jeffers Hill was one of six schools that launched the program this school year.
The purpose of the program is to instill pride in black students and to increase academic achievement and representation of black students in school activities. The program offers workshops for teachers and parents and a series of career and leadership seminars for students.
Black students comprise 13.9 percent of the Howard school system, according to 1987 enrollment figures.
Hill said the assembly idea "seemed to fit" as a way to introduce the program to Jeffers Hill students. School officials said special assemblies had not been used to launch the pilot program at the other eight schools.
In an interview Monday, Hill said she does not plan to use assemblies again in conjunction with the program.
According to Hill, she announced the assembly on Feb. 5 over the school's public address system. The school's 97 black students were sent to the media center for the special program that morning, she said. In that program, black school staff members gave presentations about communications skills, goals and the importance of staying in school.
The school's 400 white, Asian and Hispanic students remained in their classrooms where teachers held separate discussions on ethnic and cultural backgrounds, Hill said.
The assembly lasted about 35 minutes, Hill said, and the black students then returned to their classrooms with the other pupils.
By Feb. 10, Hill and the school's PTA President Jan Scammell reported receiving phone calls from parents upset about the Feb. 5 assembly and about a letter all students wrote to their parents inviting them to a Black Student Achievement Program meeting.
Hill said Monday that she sent a three-page newsletter home Feb. 22 with students and held two days of private meetings with groups of about 50 parents.
Still, many parents are upset about the situation and continue to discuss it, school officials said.
"It's hard to believe that this one event would give enough fuel to burn a fire this long," Hill said in an interview Monday.
School officials said that only "a handful" of parents are upset and declined to give names of anyone who has complained. Parents who have talked to reporters have declined to disclose their names, citing the sensitivity of the issue and the fear of backlash.
What has incensed parents the most, according to Hill, was the "segregated" nature of the assembly, which some parents said raised, for the first time in many young children's minds, the concept of race and racial differences.
Said Hill, "They said, 'Prior to this gathering, my child did not see color. Now they are suddenly starting to see color. It's having a dramatic effect.' "
Joan Palmer, assistant superintendent of curriculum, said students should be taught to appreciate and share the positive contributions of different ethnic groups. Palmer said the Howard County school system supports the Black Student Achievement Program because it benefits all students by helping them understand different cultures better.
"The children we're teaching will live in the real world," Palmer said. "People recognize color. Hopefully we'll progress to a society where color is recognized in a positive way."
Gloria F. Washington, the staff coordinator for the Black Student Achievement Program, said the reaction of Jeffers Hill parents to the program indicates a need for more race relations discussions among parents of all cultural backgrounds.
Washington said she doubts the Jeffers Hill controversy will deter efforts to expand the program, which is scheduled to receive its first evaluation next month by the school system.