She was swimming upstream, and she knew it. An African American girl earning top grades in 33 Montgomery County high school honors and advanced placement courses. At the beginning of the school year, no one expected her to be in class. In the end, no one expected her to succeed.
On the first day of school, teachers always asked, "Are you sure you're supposed to be here?" When she'd say yes, they'd want to look at her schedule. Just to be sure.
"Like I couldn't read," she said.
This girl--who graduated in 1997 and spoke to Elizabeth Ingram, a local educator studying minority enrollment in honors courses--was hardly alone. Far fewer blacks and Hispanics are enrolled in high-level courses in Montgomery County public schools than are their white and Asian counterparts. The biggest difference for this girl was that she didn't let her teachers get in her way, as is the norm, a final work group report presented yesterday to the Board of Education found.
"This is analogous to police work, where they put up roadblocks. But instead of the incident being driving while black, it's educating while black or educating while Hispanic," said board Vice Chairwoman Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase). "We have to remove those roadblocks."
Shirley Levin, a consultant for college-bound high school students and a member of the work group, said teachers are the key in pushing students into higher-level courses, either nurturing the spark they see or holding them back.
Often, she hears bright students who have been turned down for honors courses saying, "Well, the teacher must really know what I'm capable of." One student who successfully petitioned to get into an honors class was told sneeringly, "Well, don't come crying to me when you get a C"--which that student got.
Although the school system has a policy of opening honors and AP courses to all students with the interest, ability or motivation, the work group found that each of the county's 23 high schools interpreted that policy differently.
For example, Albert Einstein High School has a liberal policy, enrolling students who merely show interest. Sherwood High looks at a combination of interest, grades and teacher recommendations.
But other schools--such as Walt Whitman, Winston Churchill, Damascus and Seneca Valley--have more restrictive policies. Often a teacher's recommendation can make or break a student's attempt to enroll.
Patricia Gafford, who teaches AP literature at Walter Johnson High School, said teachers often lack the training to teach honors and AP classes. Many are too overwhelmed to look beyond stereotypes, she said, to help a student break out of a peer group that denigrates achievement as "acting white" and tackle higher-level classes.
"I understand attitudes are not always intentional, but they do exist," said board member Beatrice B. Gordon (At-Large). She said she hoped attitudes would change by November.
The work group report offered some recommendations, albeit fuzzy, to enroll more blacks and Hispanics in honors courses. For starters, schools should have uniform criteria for getting into such classes and should not rely solely on a teacher's judgment. Instead, principals should set up screening committees. The report also suggests setting goals for minority enrollment, and making principals accountable for meeting them and for starting much earlier, in elementary school, to nurture minority children.
The board unanimously agreed to discuss the issue at a retreat, then to develop an action plan.
That did not satisfy board member Kermit Burnett. "I don't think we have the luxury of waiting any longer," he said. "Our children are dying on the vine."
Indeed, the work group, appointed two years ago by Superintendent Paul L. Vance, reported in March that while the number of students taking honors and AP courses had increased for all ethnic groups over the past 10 years, far fewer African Americans and Hispanics were in the classes than white or Asian students.
In fall 1997, 67 percent of Asian high school students were taking at least one honors course, compared with 60 percent of whites, 30 percent of Hispanics and 27 percent of blacks.
These courses, research shows, catch the eye of college recruiters and lead to better college entrance test scores and scholarship opportunities.
CAPTION: Malone Samuels: "Students are cranked in and ground out as quickly as possible."