Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Changing times but persistent problems

Three decades after a comprehensive report on issues facing black students, the school system lacks answers for many questions

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In 1978, the school board approved an ambitious report on race relations in the county’s public school system.

Thirty years later, current administrators are still struggling to address some of the 33 recommendations outlined in the report, former administrators say.

In the document, called ‘‘Black Relations Action Steps,” a group of school system employees called on administrators to address the disproportionate suspension rates between black and white students and tasked school leaders with examining the overrepresentation of black students in special education classes.

It also called for the system to hire and promote black staffers to top-level positions, and report annually to the county and state school boards on their progress.

‘‘Our goal is to provide the highest quality of education for all segments of our student population,” wrote then-Superintendent Charles M. Bernardo in the report. ‘‘Achievement of this goal must involve not only a statement of action but also a commitment of staff, students, parents and community members.”

Minorities are still suspended much more than their white and Asian American peers and overrepresented in special education programs.

Of the 7,214 students suspended last school year, 3,441 of them were black and 1,885 were Latino, according to data from the Maryland State Department of Education. A total of 1,477 white students were suspended, the data show. In closing the secondary learning centers last year and the Mark Twain program for emotionally disturbed students this year, administrators argued that the populations were racially out of sync with the rest of the school system.

‘‘The action steps really identified major problems that many didn’t think existed,” said George B. Thomas Sr., author of several of the action steps, who now runs a learning academy to help close an achievement gap between some minorities and their white and Asian-American peers.

‘‘The issues are still there, and I think they’re going to be there, maybe not to the same extent,” Thomas said. ‘‘It’s not that the school system hasn’t given attention to them, it’s just so complex. It’s complex to really solve all of the issues and problems regarding fully implementing what the action steps were meant to do.”

The report, considered the first of its kind by county observers, cost some committee members their jobs after they pressed administrators about progress in addressing the report’s findings, said school board member Judith R. Docca, who helped implement the action steps.

‘‘We’ve talked about it more,” said Docca (Dist. 1) of Montgomery Village. ‘‘Recently, they have been working to address some of the issues that have to deal with minorities. I think they’ve moved forward more than any other administration, but the issues have been the same since 1978.”

In the report, the committee asked the school system to study the way student government leaders are picked, ensure black people are portrayed accurately in instructional materials, and revise the curriculum to better include contributions from black leaders.

There was resistance to the action steps, but the real backlash came when the school board mandated all personnel to take a sensitivity training class on black relations, said Frederick S. Evans, who worked with Docca 30 years ago to implement the steps.

By 1980, just two years later, the board reneged on its mandate, requiring only newly hired teachers to take the class, he said.

‘‘I think that the Black Relations Action Steps was a pretty powerful step,” said Evans, who began his career as a teacher at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville in 1970.

When Jerry D. Weast was hired as schools superintendent almost 10 years ago, he and his staff focused their attention on the so-called ‘‘red zone,” an area downcounty that had the highest concentration of poor students. Full-day kindergarten countywide, more emphasis on reading in primary grades and better instructional materials in the zone would help close the gap, Weast has said.

But while school leaders talk continuously about race relations, the topic still has not been adequately discussed, Evans said.

‘‘We get wrapped up in political correctness. I don’t know if we’re being honest dealing with it, and attacking it so to speak,” he said. ‘‘We still have the pressing problems. People are real afraid to talk openly about race, especially among white people. There’s no easy answer. It has to be on the front burner all the time.”

The school board and Weast have discussed race relations during a recent series of evening meetings. The series, called ‘‘Continuing the Dialogue on Race,” has focused on closing the gap and the effectiveness of study circles in the curriculum. On June 23, the board will discuss suspension rates and interventions for students.

The current administration talks about race, but ‘‘that just didn’t come out of nowhere. We’ve been doing that since the ’70s,” said Evans, now the president of the school system’s retirees association. ‘‘I think it has to be an open discussion among all aspects of government. I don’t think we have enough alternatives to the traditional way schools are set up.”

But Weast has hired minorities to key positions to help influence change in the school system, Thomas said. Weast’s deputy superintendent, Frieda K. Lacey, for example, is black and leads a workgroup that discusses the effects of the achievement gap in schools.

The current administration should be commended for its talks about race relations, but residents ought to continue the fight the action steps began, Thomas said.

‘‘I think [the system] has been trying to do the right thing,” he said. ‘‘The citizens and the minority groups ... need to make sure the school system is addressing the needs of their students. That, in my opinion, is the value of the Black Action Steps.”