Walking a Tightrope
As he met with the boy, James M. Patton, an associate dean from the education school at the College of William and Mary in nearby Williamsburg, noticed that he carried a magazine carefully wrapped in brown parcel paper. Could it be Penthouse or Playboy?
Those guesses, it turned out, weren’t even close. The boy was toting the latest issue of Scientific American.
“He just didn’t want his homeboys to see him with it,” Patton recalls. " Even at home, he didn’t want certain members of his family to see it.”
The encounter tells much about the conflicts that gifted black children face--particularly those who come from poor communities.
To some degree, all children who are singled out as gifted have a tough time moving between their academic worlds and the everyday culture of teenage life. They might endure being labeled a “geek” or “brain” by classmates. They may feel unduly pressured to excel in school or they might ache from loneliness in classes with older classmates.
For black kids from low-income families, those challenges can be especially trying. Besides all the usual hardships, their peers might accuse them of “acting white” because they are succeeding in a world whose rhythms and norms reflect white society.
“First, I had to fight to be gifted,” one such boy told a researcher in a 1986 study. “Then I had to fight because I was gifted.”
Walking a Tightrope
The school where Patton encountered the boy and his camouflaged Scientific American is no longer an experiment. Richmond Community High School is now an established institution, an award-winning school with six times as many applicants each year as there are slots to fill.
It is among a handful of city schools nationwide that serve gifted students from low-income homes.
And, in a city where more than half the population is black, nearly 70 percent of the school’s students are also African-American. status, these students must, each day, walk the same tightrope between the separate worlds of school and home.
On these pages are the stories of four of them.
In recent interviews, Osita Omotola, Roshunda Council, Demetrious Daniel, and Kenny West talked about what it’s like to succeed in school when so many of their peers are struggling.
They offered differing motivations for their desire to do well in school. Osita, who will be a senior this fall, wants to show that someone from the projects can succeed. Demetrious, who graduated last month, says he is driven to disprove the stereotype that black people cannot succeed in school. Roshunda is determined not to repeat her parents’ mistakes. And Kenny, a rising sophomore and the youngest member of the group, has never lacked for drive.
Each of the four has at least one supportive parent in their lives.
Roughly three-quarters of the 200 students enrolled at Richmond Community High come from low-income households. The school itself, housed in a vintage 1930s former elementary school, is situated in a middle-class community of offices, shops, and well-kept homes on the north side of the city.
The school was created through the generosity of a local businessman in 1977. The idea in part was to provide a safe and intellectually challenging place for disadvantaged kids to be smart.
“Many people assume that just because they’re bright you don’t have to pay much attention to them. But that’s far from the truth,” says Margaret Dabney, a former education school dean who developed the educational underpinnings that guide the school to this day. Now retired, she is helping to set up another school for gifted students from more rural settings in Petersburg, Va.
“There are many youngsters who never get to integrate their abilities and who never get to fully develop them,” Dabney says.
She believes that gifted black children, particularly those from low-income homes, are often overlooked in school. To interest those children in applying, Richmond Community High often sends its own students--usually young black men--out to the middle schools on recruitment runs.
“It’s very difficult to find black males who are able to overcome the selection process,” says Audrey Swann, who has been the principal since 1994. “If we demystify what the program is all about and assure them that we’re not here to clone robots, then they want to come.”
The school uses a variety of means to decide which students are qualified. Applicants take a variety of tests, some of which have been specially designed to assess the achievement potential of minority students, and undergo a round of interviews with students and members of the school’s governing board.
“We always select a number of wild card students who might otherwise fall through the cracks,” Swann says.
African-Americans have fought long and hard to obtain for their children the same education that white children get, from the secret efforts of slaves to learn to read and write to the historic desegregation battles of recent times.
The notion that successful blacks must undertake a difficult balancing act has been around a long time as well.
“It made me think about W.E.B. Du Bois and how he talked years ago about how African-Americans had two warring souls,” says Patton, recalling his meeting with the young boy. He helped the Richmond school develop its selection criteria and has conducted his own studies of highly talented black children.
Du Bois, a black sociologist, educator, and author, theorized earlier in this century that blacks had to learn to function both within the African-American culture and in the mainstream culture of white society. The dual roles called for different behaviors, manners of speaking, and mind-sets. To those two cultures, Patton added a third: the culture of giftedness. These children, he said, have the formidable task of moving through all three worlds.
“People who are at ease or at peace with themselves can move easily across all these cultures,” he said. Those who can’t may never feel at home in their own skins.
Signithia Fordham, an anthropologist at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, describes the phenomenon slightly differently. She spent four years watching students at an all-black high school in Washington that has a magnet program for academically talented pupils.
Both the successful students in that program and the school’s other students were actively resisting the racism they perceived in their lives, she says. But they rebelled in different ways.
“For the underachieving kids it was resistance through avoidance,” Ms. Fordham explains.
Most of the students at the school came from homes in which their parents--members of a generation that had grown to adulthood during the civil rights era--had impressed upon them the idea that education was a key to success in life. While outwardly espousing the same beliefs, many students refused to do homework or skipped school altogether.
It was almost, Ms. Fordham says, as if they were deliberately trying to fail. These students sometimes expressed the belief that the promise of the civil rights movement would never really come to be.
In contrast, she adds, the high-achieving students resisted by conforming to what they perceived as white society’s expectations.
“They could do calculus, mathematics, and science and all these things in ways comparable to other groups,” she said. “Conformity, they thought, would benefit the image of African-American people.” The practice had become a pragmatic strategy for them.
“They were politically astute at a very early age and well beyond their years in wisdom,” Fordham added. “These were kids who were compelled to behave as adults.”
But the underachieving students interpreted their peers’ academic success and behaviors--some of the successful students would not speak black English in school, for example--as a rejection of their culture. They equated school success with giving up their black identities or “acting white.”
Becoming Joe Cool
That many gifted black students must handle such pressure is no surprise to teachers at Richmond Community High.
“I have watched kids walk outside, unbutton their shirts, lower their britches, put their hats on backward, change their demeanor, and walk out into the community,” says Cheryl Caes, who teaches calculus, statistics, and physics to 11th and 12th graders. “It’s like they shift from the student to Joe Cool.”
Omar Branch, who will be a junior this fall, explains: “When you’re with your friends, you’re truly yourself. When you’re at school it’s like an act. Your whole mentality about what you’re doing at the time is different.”
Though race is an element in the barriers these students must overcome, some teachers say the bigger problem is the gulf between rich and poor.
“One group might look at it as acting white,” says A.W. Jones, who teaches algebra and chemistry. “Another group might look at it as brown-nosing. Another group might look at it as showing off. It doesn’t always take on racial tones.”
His students, he says, are sensitive to these issues. “You learn not to throw your dreams and visions and goals and experiences in the faces of people who are without those things.”
Some students here say that when they meet new people, they often won’t tell them where they go to school--at least not right away.
One junior sheepishly admits that she lies and says that she goes to another high school in the city. “Oh,” they anticipate their new acquaintances may say when they reveal their school’s name, “you go to that geek school.”
But inside Richmond Community High’s aging brick walls, students say they feel freer to display their academic gifts.
“In middle school, it was kind of uncool to show you were smart,” says Tsahai Wilson, who graduated this spring. “Here, you’re taught to be proud of that and to use it to your advantage.”
A Nurturing Environment
Sometimes, however, the delicate balance these students try to maintain tips in a dangerous direction. Students who can’t--or won’t--keep up their grades despite their obvious ability and extra support from teachers must go back to the high school in their regular attendance zones. Sometimes, they are among the brightest students at the school.
“It kills me when students have to transfer out of here,” says Rita Willis, who teaches Spanish. “We always have to compete with the streets.”
To do that, the school takes pains to nurture students both psychologically and academically.
One aspect of that effort is “family,” a cross between a typical homeroom and a rap session. Every day just before lunch, students report to meetings of about 15 students from all four grades, led by teachers, and discuss whatever is on their minds.
“If you talk with gifted youngsters one of the things they need very badly is to feel connected with people like themselves so they don’t have to apologize for being smart and liking to study,” Dabney says. The daily meetings provide a forum for forging those bonds.
High Success Rate
The school also starts the day with “morning meeting.” Held in the dreary basement cafeteria, these meetings are ostensibly a place to make announcements or catch students up on school news.
But students are also encouraged here to offer kudos to their schoolmates. A senior might get up, for example, and congratulate a classmate on winning a scholarship or appearing in a local theater production. The practice, one that has grown up informally over the years, allows the spotlight to shine on individual students without requiring them to brag or boast--something many of these students have been raised to avoid.
A requirement that students perform 75 hours of community service is intended to instill in them a civic spirit and to keep them humble and connected to their home communities. Students also take college courses, camp, and conduct ecological research near the Chesapeake Bay.
The combination of efforts seems to be working.
Most students here make it through all four years. And 99 percent of the graduating seniors go to four-year colleges and universities. The destinations for this year’s class range from Stanford University to historically black institutions such as Howard University to nearby schools such as Virginia Commonwealth University.
Swann, the principal, says that 70 percent to 85 percent of the school’s graduates finish college in four years. Across the United States, in comparison, the proportion of African-Americans who earn their baccalaureates in five years is only about half as high.
Patton, who has conducted focus groups of students at Richmond over the years, says many of its students have found a way to move easily from one culture to another.
“What we’re finding is that these youngsters are equating achievement ideology with their blackness,” he says. “They don’t subscribe to the notion of the Oreo cookie. They subscribe to the notion of the chocolate chip cookie that is the same in every culture.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week