Twelve-year-old Alex Carter is an A student who loves science and reads a book a week. So it surprised his father when he announced last year that he didn't want to enroll in an honors class that his teacher recommended for the following term.
"That class is for the smart people, the nerds," Alex told him. His father replied, "Well, who are you?"
Alex is a junior league football player, an avid golfer and a lifelong suburbanite. He's also one of only a handful of African American students in his seventh-grade class at Eagle Ridge Middle School in Ashburn. He dreams of becoming a professional athlete like his dad, Tom, who played cornerback for the Washington Redskins. But as he nears his teenage years in a predominantly white school in Loudoun County, his parents are concerned that he could abandon academic pursuits because he thinks they are better left to his white classmates.
That's why Tom and Renee Carter joined last year with about 15 families, including the parents of nearly every black male sixth-grader, to push their sons to graduate on time in 2012 with options for the future and without lowering their expectations or test scores along the way. They call it Club 2012.
The group holds monthly house meetings, twice-weekly homework sessions, "rap sessions" between fathers and sons, and social or community service activities. The parents speak often with teachers and administrators, many of whom come to parent-organized events.
"We know there is an achievement gap in the county, in the state, in the country," said Gabrielle Carpenter, mother of one of Alex's classmates and a guidance counselor at Dominion High School in Sterling who founded Club 2012. Her goal is to make sure their sons aren't part of it.
After eight years in her field, Carpenter said, she has seen countless young black students start school enthusiastically, then lose interest because they don't feel "a part of their environment."
Her son Alden was sometimes the only black student in his class in elementary school, and although he did well, she worried about how comfortable he was. In first grade, he got in trouble for pushing a girl who kept touching his hair. Another time, Carpenter asked Alden what color he was, and he answered, "Dark white."
By middle school, an age when children begin to more fully grasp racial and social differences, Alden started sitting with the other black students at lunch. Concerned about their potential isolation, Carpenter decided it was time to get more involved. She approached Tom Carter, who was teaching math at Dominion High, a year ago with the idea of setting up a black parents group to raise their sons' confidence and expectations.
They invited other parents, including doctors and business owners, to the Carpenters' house to share some sobering statistics.
In affluent Loudoun, known for its strong schools, black students consistently lag behind their white classmates on standardized tests. Last year, 63 percent of black eighth-graders in the county passed the state math test; 62 percent passed in English. White students' pass rate for both subjects was 89 percent. At Eagle Ridge, where 8 percent of students are black, the gaps were similar.
Many parents in the group have college degrees and can afford such activities as summer camp and tutoring, two indicators that researchers have linked to higher achievement.
But even with their advantages, these parents say they worry about the images of African American men that their sons absorb from popular media. Carter said he started noticing his son and his friends strutting, letting their pants sag and picking up slang. He became troubled when they started doubting their abilities in advanced math and science.
Carpenter said she understands that her son now cares most about his friends and being cool. So she figures if she can get all of the boys to buy into the idea that math is cool, too, then they will help one another succeed.
The parents said they are focusing on boys because research shows African American girls are more likely to achieve in school and go onto college than African American boys.
"Middle-class African Americans are still very influenced by the stereotypes that black kids are not academically oriented," said Pedro A. Noguera, a professor of sociology at New York University who studies achievement gaps.
"You have to defy the stereotypes associated with race or gender. So you need something else working in a very powerful way to show that being black and being academically oriented [are] not at odds. . . . This is where a parent's role is very important."
In the Washington area, many African American parents are finding new avenues to engage in their children's education.
In Montgomery County, the NAACP Parents' Council recently set up a Sunday Scholars program at some schools to help minority students prepare for standardized tests and to coach parents on how to be better advocates for their children. In the Alexandria area, some parents in the Parent, Teacher, Student Association at Thomas A. Edison High School have started working with minority students to improve academic performance and to increase participation in the International Baccalaureate program, providing extra support when needed.
"I think there's a sense of urgency," said Crystal DeVance-Wilson, president of the parents' council in Montgomery. "Some parents are pulling out all the stops," she said.
Many are going beyond speaking out for their children to help parents who might not know that their seventh-graders are taking math they should have taken in fourth grade, she said.
Club 2012 has encouraged other parents to start a Club 2013, but so far, only a few of them have come together. The club's founders are also forming a nonprofit organization to support parents elsewhere.
A year after its initial meeting, Club 2012 convened one recent Saturday night beneath the vaulted ceilings of the Carpenters' living room. While their sons banged on a drum set downstairs, the parents planned etiquette training for them. They reviewed a recent field trip to the Federal Aviation Administration in Leesburg and plans for a trip to the University of Virginia. They want to visit the White House.
As they clicked off agenda items, they passed around spreadsheets that plotted their sons' academic progress. They noted that the number of A's the boys earned rose from 30 in the spring to 37 in the fall, while the C's decreased from 10 to three. They talked about individual gains or setbacks, careful to keep names coded to protect their sons' identities.
In the basement, the boys playing video games were less discreet. "I got all A's and B's," Alex said. Alden bragged, "This quarter I got all A's."
In a recent Club 2012 homework session at Eagle Ridge, parent volunteer John Johnson walked around the room to see what each child was doing. He grilled two students about poetry for an upcoming quiz. When another two got stuck factoring polynomials for their algebra homework, Johnson walked with them down the hall to ask a teacher for help.
Cameron Molina was in the back of the room printing out an English paper when he whispered to his friend, "Did you get recommended for all honors" classes?
As the room cleared, Carpenter said Alden was "up in arms" after his science teacher initially did not recommend him for an honors class next quarter.
"I love it," she said.