COLUMBIA — When public education is the topic, talk often turns to the academic achievement gap between white and minority students. But a group of Columbia students is doing more than talking about the gap — they're figuring out how to cross it. On Saturday, they are holding a conference at Hickman High School to share that information with other minority students.
The group is known throughout the district as the MAC (Minority Achievement Committee) Scholars, except at Rock Bridge High School, where the students call themselves MAAC (Minority Ambassadors for Achievement Council) Scholars. The conference, "Failure Is Not An Option," is a district-wide event and was independently conceived and organized by the students in the group.
What: MAC Scholars 2010 Spring Conference
When: From 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Hickman High School, 1104 N. Providence Road
To attend: Registration and check-in begins at 7:30 a.m. in the Hickman Commons.
- Breakfast and keynote talk by Manuel Scott: 8 to 9:30 a.m.
- Information sessions: 9:40 to 10:40 a.m.
- Repeat of information sessions: 10:50 to 11:50 a.m.
- Lunch and closing speech by DeAngela Burns-Wallace: 11:50 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
For additional information, call Symone Thomas, MAC coordinator, at 214-3008, ext. 43460.
The goal of the conference is similar to that of the MAC program: to help minority students prepare for college. It's aimed at students and their parents. While the program helps students maintain a long-term focus on performance in school, the conference focuses on details students need to know about the college application process and for transitioning to college life.
The keynote speaker will be Manuel Scott, an original "Freedom Writer" — part of a class of so-called unteachable students whose lives were turned around by a caring teacher and whose story became a movie. Symone Thomas, district coordinator of MAC Scholars, said Scott was selected because of his message and ability to reach out to students.
"He's very humble and passionate," Thomas said. "He just has that 'it' factor when he speaks."
Breaking the cycle
Scott grew up in Los Angeles, where he struggled with obstacles that prevent many black, Hispanic and other minority students from reaching their potential. Scott said that getting past those obstacles was a matter of personal change and help from supportive people. Scott now works as a motivational speaker to show struggling students they can make the change like he did. He estimated that he has spoken to nearly 300,000 people at conferences over the past year.
His father was in prison, he said; his stepfather was addicted to crack, and his mother was not able to cope with the stress of that life. It was a life of pain, Scott said. "I blamed everyone for my problems — my mom, white people, society," he said. "It was pain that turned me around. I wanted better."
He said that experience helps him understand what minority students are going through. "Kids come to me saying, 'I've got no reason to live,'" he said.
"I don't like leaving my family to travel so much, but I feel a sense of responsibility to do something to help," Scott said.
Like the hurting kids he now talks to, Scott wanted a better life at that age but didn't know how to reach that goal. That changed when he met Martin Stokes, who worked at a youth center. Stokes helped him see the answer was a personal choice, Scott said. Stokes told him, "You can break this cycle."
"He told me I needed to go back to school. So, I went back to school," Scott said.
That decision cost Scott most of his friends, who thought he was "soft" for going to school, he said. They couldn't see what he wanted from life. Some of them died — the streets got them, he said.
Going back to school wasn't easy. Scott said he had missed about 60 to 90 days of school each year from fourth through ninth grades, and it was hard to overcome that educational deficit. "You just don't make up for lost time that quickly," he said. Thanks to his teacher, Erin Gruwell, Scott and his classmates finished high school, and most made it to college, Scott said. Their story was the basis of the 2007 movie "Freedom Writers" with Hilary Swank.
Doing it right
The idea for the conference came after Columbia MAC Scholars went to a national Minority Student Achievement Network conference in Madison, Wis., two years ago, said Stephanie Barnette, a Rock Bridge senior who went on the trip.
Barnette said that the closer the Columbia conference gets, the more hectic her schedule has become. "We want to make sure it's done right, and to show we can do it," she said. She will attend University of Missouri-Kansas City this fall to major in pharmaceutical science.
Michael Tatum, a Hickman junior who has been an MAC Scholar since seventh grade, said he has been working on details for the conference's wrap-up. "It's an important conference for the self-growth of the students," Tatum said. He saw Scott this past fall at the 2009 MSAN national conference in Chicago and was among six students who helped select the keynote speaker for the Columbia conference.
Mahogany Thomas, a ninth-grader at West Junior High School, has been an MAC Scholar since sixth grade. She said her part of preparing for the conference was entering registration information, which will help make sure that attendees get to the right place at the right time.
DeAngela Burns-Wallace, director of access initiatives in MU's division of enrollment management, will be the closing speaker. She came to MU in October 2009 from Stanford University and, before that, was a Foreign Service officer for the U.S. State Department.
Burns-Wallace said she wants the MAC Scholars to know that MU is a partner for them. "My hope is that my comments will be a stamp of encouragement on their efforts," she said.
The conference is exciting because the students are not waiting for someone else to come fix the achievement gap — they realize they have a powerful role in closing that gap, Burns-Wallace said. By hosting the event, she said, "They are challenging their peers to come and be a part of the conversation."
Christal Jackson and Terri Tatum, both parents of MAC Scholars, said the program has been beneficial to their children. Jackson, who is president of the MAC parents board, said it's challenged her daughter, a ninth-grader at Oakland Junior High School, to achieve in honors courses.
Terri Tatum said the program has helped her son Michael stay on-task with schoolwork by helping improve his study habits. When he sees other minority students who are motivated to go to college, it reinforces that idea for him, she said. Michael took part in the MAC summer program at MU, where students stay on campus for two weeks during the summer and live like college students, she said. That included doing their own laundry, she said.
Jackson said the activities the scholars participate in make the program fun. "The program makes it cool to be smart," she said.