On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that school segregation was unconstitutional.
Black students were free to attend the same schools as white students and learn the same lessons. But something unexpected has happened during these past 50 years. The lessons being taught to black and white students are the same, but an achievement gap between the two races remains.
Last week the Missouri Assessment Program test results were released. The test indicates academic proficiency in communication arts and mathematics among subgroups defined by the state, such as minorities and students who quality for free or reduced-price school lunches.
The results showed a continuing disparity between black and white students. Area educators say it is a growing concern, with causes and solutions too numerous and too complicated to count.
Blue Ridge, Derby Ridge, Parkade, West Boulevard and Field elementary schools faced possible sanctions this year if test scores did not improve.
Scores were released last week, and Blue Ridge was the exception — the only one of those schools that improved at every level.
However, school administrators and faculty are addressing the achievement gap between black and white students.
Black students make up about 45 percent of the student population at Blue Ridge, compared with about 20 percent overall for Columbia Public Schools.
The Adequate Yearly Progress standards for black students at Blue Ridge topped the state and local levels in communication arts and math.
Blue Ridge Principal Tim Majerus credits the committee his school formed last year for narrowing the achievement gap between the school’s white and black students.
The committee looked at the data from previous years in an effort to better understand the gap. The committee then visited other schools that showed success with minority students.
One of these schools was Pierre Laclede Elementary in St. Louis. Marietta Monroe, a Blue Ridge teacher and a committee member, said she saw firsthand how Laclede school officials enforced a positive and confident learning environment.
“I think it’s a mind-set,” Monroe said. “Teachers and students have to believe they can achieve.”
But what about the ethnic makeup of educators? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2003 the estimated total number of K-12 public and private teachers was 3.5 million. The number of white teachers was 3 million, or 85 percent of the total.
Monroe, who is black, said she does not see whether a teacher is black or white as an issue. “Most of them look at me and say, ‘She’s a teacher, and she’ll look out for me,’ ” Monroe said. “I just think you have to make connections with your students.”
There are other factors that might explain the growing achievement gap such as the curriculum in schools, area educators said.
For example, some districts wait for Black History Month in February to teach black literature or black history, which might alienate the black student populations.
Hickman High School Principal Wanda Brown said she believes Columbia schools do a good job of teaching black history and literature throughout the school year. But she does see a weakness.
“We are not where we need to be in terms of multicultural curriculum,” Brown said.
She added that the curriculum should reflect every student in class. For instance, she said, history should have a more global emphasis.
Brown also believes the teaching ranks should become more diverse, although she said diversity does not mean white teachers can’t teach black students. Any good teacher can teach any student, regardless of race, she said.
She also credited the Minority Achievement Committee Scholars program at Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools for aiding in the placement of black students into advanced-placement and honors classes.
Symone Langston-Thomas, a home-school communicator at Hickman, works with the minority program. Langston-Thomas’ job includes dispelling the myth that being smart is unpopular. She also must deal with the stereotype that equates black student academic achievement with “selling out” or “acting white.”
“It’s OK to be smart,” Langston-Thomas said. “It has nothing to do with acting white. It’s about being the absolute best that you can be. And education will get you wherever you want to be in life.”
Still, the gap remains. It recently has been highlighted on the national stage by comedian Bill Cosby, who in May and July offered strong criticism of the black community for not embracing education.
“They think they’re hip,” Cosby said. “They can’t read; they can’t write. They’re laughing and giggling, and they’re going nowhere.”
Brown remains optimistic that the gap can be closed.
“I think that what our community needs to know is that we are doing everything we can to address disparity that exists between populations of students and their achievement,” she said. “And it’s probably going to be a long process. But it needs to be something that we can see results to, and that is what’s happening even now.”