If there is a school district in America where an African-American student should be able to excel, this affluent Cleveland suburb is probably it.
Shaker Heights prides itself as a model of racial harmony, and black children—many of them from professional families—make up just over half the school population. In the solid embrace of this community’s handsome, red-brick schools, students enjoy teachers with master’s degrees or better, computerized classrooms, and a menu of rigorous academic courses that rivals that of a small college.
So why is John Jackson one of just two African-Americans in the Advanced Placement physics class at Shaker Heights High School?
The answer is that Shaker Heights is struggling with a problem that is vexing middle-class districts all across the country: the underrepresentation of minority students among “the best and the brightest.” While low-achieving black and Hispanic students made great strides nationwide throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s in narrowing the gap that separates them from their white and Asian-American counterparts, the gulf at the upper reaches of the achievement spectrum remains as solid as the school architecture here in Shaker Heights.
“A lot of African-American students believe what’s required of them isn’t the same as what’s required of white students,” said Mr. Jackson, a lanky senior with an acceptance to Harvard University already under his belt.
Many researchers and scholars, agree.
Nationwide, black and Hispanic students constitute only about one in 10 of the students scoring at the topmost level on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in reading, math, and science, according to a report last year from the College Board. What was even more puzzling, the researchers found, was that the racial disparities were greater among students whose parents had college degrees than they were for students whose parents had never graduated from high school.
And, even though black students are now enrolling in college at nearly the same rate as their white peers, far fewer make it through the other end of the higher education pipeline with a degree in hand.
Too troubling to ignore, those kinds of statistics have moved once-taboo discussions of the achievement gap onto educators’ agendas nationwide. Shaker Heights last year joined with school officials in Evanston, Ill., Montclair, N.J., and 12 other suburban communities to try to tackle the problem.
“If those in relatively affluent communities serving kids where all the odds are not against them can’t crack the problem, there are many who will say it can’t be done because the kids are not capable,” Edmund W. Gordon, a Yale University psychology professor, said in a speech last year to officials from those districts.
Concern is high because the stakes are high. Many of the nation’s future leaders will be drawn from these pools of high-achieving children, and a continuing underrepresentation of minority students could thwart long-standing efforts to better integrate the highest levels of business, academe, and government.
What’s more, with affirmative action policies under attack in colleges and universities nationwide, there is widespread agreement that improving test scores among African-Americans is one of public education’s most pressing concerns.
“Until many more underrepresented minority families from disadvantaged, middle-class, and upper-middle-class families are very successful educationally,” the College Board warns in its 1999 report, “it will be virtually impossible to integrate our society’s institutions.”
The frustration of Shaker Heights is that things were supposed to be different here.
In the 1960s, when courts were beginning to force school districts to integrate, residents of this planned community on a rise above urban Cleveland voluntarily agreed to bus their children across the 61/2-square-mile district to maintain racial balance in their schools.
The district reorganized again in 1994 when it became apparent that the racial balance was tipping dangerously in a couple of Shaker Heights’ eight schools.
Elsewhere, such changes have prompted white parents to leave for whiter, even more suburban schools. Not here.
Now, every school in Shaker Heights pretty much reflects the district’s overall racial mix—52 percent black, 42 percent white, and a smattering of Asian-American and multiracial children. And school officials say resources and highly qualified teachers are evenly split among them.
“People who choose to move here know that their children are going to go to school in classrooms where there are children of different races,” said Mark Freeman, the superintendent of the 5,600-student district.
What’s more, poverty is not a big factor here—only 8 percent of the students come from families poor enough to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. But educators here say that figure may be low, since the schools do not provide hot lunches in grades K-4.
In fact, African-American students in this top-rated school system really do fare better than average. Some, like Mr. Jackson, even excel. On the 1998 SAT, taken by nearly three-quarters of seniors here, African-American students scored 100 points above the average for black students nationwide.
White students, however, do even better, scoring 150 points above the average for their race on the same test. Overall, Shaker Heights’ black students lag behind their white classmates on the college-admissions test by more than 200 points, a sizable chunk on a scale of 1600.
One reason for such disparities may be the racial makeup in high-powered academic classes like AP physics. Studies for years have shown that the academic rigor of the courses students pursue in high school can be the single most important predictor of college success—more important even than grade point averages and test scores.
The district two years ago opened up enrollment in top-level classes to any student who wants to sign up. Before that, school officials used teacher recommendations, student test scores, and student work to decide who would be admitted to AP and honors classes. Even so, black students remain a tiny minority in many advanced classes at the district’s only high school.
Mr. Jackson, for example, has no more than three other black classmates in his other two AP classes—English and American government.
“None of your friends are there and, if you’re African-American, you may not know half the kids,” explains Mr. Jackson. “When it comes time to study they have their group and it’s like you’re on the outside looking in.”
Overall, about a third of the students in the honors and AP courses at Shaker Heights High are now African-American. (In all, the high school offers four levels of courses: general, college-placement, honors, and Advanced Placement.)
“We see the same two or three African-American kids in every class,” said Beth Dolinsky, a white senior with a heavy schedule of AP and honors classes. “It’s almost a shame there aren’t more.”
Alarmed by its own numbers, the district two years ago began a concerted effort to beef up its small contingent of high-achieving black students. That campaign has met with some success. The percentage of black students in AP classes at the high school, once hovering around 10 percent, has risen to 16 percent.
Progress is also evident in classes like Terry Pollack’s Advancement Placement U.S. history class. Seven of the 22 students this semester, for example, are African-American.
“I think you have to create a critical mass of black students in every honors and AP course,” said Mr. Pollack, a veteran educator with 39 years in the field. “Then students don’t feel so isolated.”
And that, he believes, doesn’t mean sitting back and waiting for minority students to sign up. With the district’s support, Mr. Pollack has become a one-man campaign for encouraging more African-American students to take the tough academic road. He tries to demystify AP courses for students and parents by staging fairs and inviting Mr. Jackson and other successful black students to speak about their experiences.
On most afternoons, Mr. Pollack also visits the middle school to teach students the skills in critical thinking, note-taking, and thesis development that they’ll need in the high school’s more academically oriented courses. He occasionally grades middle schoolers’ homework papers to show them how much harder they’ll have to work if they choose the tougher curriculum.
For those who do, Mr. Pollack and a handful of other AP teachers provide after-school support seminars teaching the same kinds of study skills.
Black male students such as Mr. Jackson have banded together to serve as role models and mentors to younger boys who are struggling academically. The Minority Achievement Committee, or MAC, scholars, who come to school dressed in ties and white shirts for their meetings, cut impressive figures amid the sea of T-shirts and baggy jeans their classmates are wearing. The success of that program has since inspired a MAC sisters’ programs for female students and a corps of junior MAC scholars in the middle school.
Nationwide, educators and African-American leaders say, these kinds of multi-pronged efforts may be what it takes to raise achievement among minority students. The National Urban League in 1998, for example, set up its own version of MAC scholars, the Thurgood Marshall Achievers. Numbering more than 5,000 members now, the group is a national honor society for black students, male and female, in grades 3-11.
And the efforts undertaken by the 15 districts in the Minority Achievement Network range from stepped-up literacy efforts to free college-entrance test-preparation classes for minority students in high school. Network members collaborate to share their experiences with these programs, to develop common techniques for gathering data on minority students’ progress, and to make better use of resources.
But the College Board, whose 1999 report, Reaching the Top, focuses on this problem, says such efforts are few and far between. Nationwide, most programs aimed at raising minority achievement have focused on the lowest-performing students rather than search for ways to boost potential high achievers.
In Shaker Heights, educators have launched after-school literacy clubs, provided teachers with diversity training, begun summer and Saturday school programs, and offered professional development to private day-care providers in the community. Even the Shaker Heights recreation department does its share, offering foreign-language classes in settings that students may find less daunting than regular classrooms.
“We’ve been relentless in terms of pursuing closing the achievement gap,” said Jim Paces, the executive director of curriculum for the district.
But not relentless enough, according to some of the community’s minority parents. They say their children’s access to challenging academic work is often blocked in subtle ways. Black males, in particular, miss out on teacher recommendations for higher-track courses and enrichment programs because they are less docile than female classmates, these parents say.
Since her son, Jabari, started 1st grade in the district seven years ago, Cheryl Johnson says, she has found herself arguing with teachers on more than one occasion to make sure her son got into a particular enrichment class, or cajoling teachers to hold him to high standards. “Sometimes less is accepted on the part of African-American students,” Ms. Johnson said.
An urban planner by profession, she is among a group of black parents who banded together in 1997 to work on raising the performance of black students in the district. Since then, the group has held town meetings, parenting seminars, and summer enrichment programs. But, these parents claim, the low expectations some teachers have for black students are hard to eradicate and can lead to a de facto tracking system.
“I was at the middle school the first morning the bell rang to go to class,” Ms. Johnson said, “and I saw a sea of African-American students going one way and a sea of white students going another way and I thought, ‘What is this?’ You can’t tell me none of those African-American children are equipped to be challenged in the same way.”
Changing Parents’ Attitudes
But from his post as an assistant principal at the middle school, Lindsay Florence also sees the other side of the coin. He says African-American parents are often reluctant to push for their children the way Ms. Johnson has and the way many white parents do.
“You have a population of students here whose parents moved from the inner city to the inner-ring suburbs, and they have a sense of accomplishment about that—and rightly so,” says the 35-year old administrator, who is African-American. “But they don’t fully understand what it takes to help their children be successful. I think they kind of rest on the laurels of the school district.”
Anecdotal information from other well-to-do districts, such as Montclair, N.J., suggests that African-American parents in many communities may be less likely to aggressively advocate for their children in school.
“The difficulty with this in this school district,” added Superintendent Freeman, “is that our weaker students are racially identifiable. Those students—or probably not as many of them—are not going to be electing to take more rigorous courses.”
“Does this result in a tracking situation? Yes, it does,” he continued. “One alternative, which we are not going to do, is to eliminate all the honors and AP courses. What we have elected to do instead is to create the best possible environment—a variety of special programs to support students who want to take those classes.
“Have we been successful? Yes. Have we reached the goals we want? No.”
Until those goals are reached, black students may still find themselves feeling isolated in tough academic classes. Students who have been there say the experience is intimidating. “I don’t feel a bond with other students in my class,” said Courtney Conwell, an 8th grade honors student. “I feel like they look at me like, ‘she don’t know what she’s doing.’”
And, until students like her learn otherwise, potentially harmful stereotypes may take root about their own academic potential. As 8th grader Stephanie Glenn put it, “Sometimes it seems it comes naturally to white people to do their homework and stuff.”
Another problem: A lot of Shaker Heights’ black students don’t see the need for challenging coursework.
“It’s like some of our African-American students really don’t buy into the power of a good education,” said Danny Young, a guidance counselor at the middle school. “If they watch MTV or sports, they see people a little older than them, and they are filthy rich. Very rarely do I get an African-American who tells me ‘I want to be a basketball player, and if I can’t do that I want to be a teacher or a lawyer or whatever.’”
What’s more, some students equate academic success with “acting white’'—particularly if successful black students use standard English or socialize with white classmates in the hallways or outside of school.
Some minority students also say they eschew the tougher classes because, like most adolescents, they would rather be with their friends. Despite the racial balance in its schools, Shaker Heights’ black and white families often lead separate lives. Students typically sit at all-black and all-white tables in the cafeteria. Many of the district’s African-American families are clustered in neighborhoods at the south end of town and, as a result, blacks and whites—even in Shaker Heights—sometimes go about their day-to-day business in separate worlds, frequenting different grocery stores, churches, and eateries.
“Some black people feel the need to be accepted by another group of black people,” said Cheryl Blackwell, a senior who is bound for Syracuse University in New York state next fall. “They don’t lower their academic achievement, but they don’t go as high as they could.”
But black parents say the peer-pressure theory gets more credibility than it deserves.
“You have to be careful about blaming the victim,’' said Debra Quarles, a mother of two Shaker Heights students. “That’s like saying poor people are poor because they just like not having money.” And, she says, blaming students lets educators off the hook.
In an effort to probe the question of peer pressure more deeply, the district has commissioned academics from the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard University to study its students. In one such survey, Ronald F. Ferguson, a lecturer and senior research associate at Harvard, found that black and white students had different ideas about what it takes to be popular.
Being tough, for example, was rated high among black middle and high school students, but white students gave that characteristic a low score. Being self-confident and outgoing in academic matters, on the other hand, showed the opposite pattern. White students gave those qualities high marks. Black students rated them low.
“It seems to be that the things that foster popularity in African-American students are more dissimilar from a style that is consonant with academic achievement than is true for whites,” Mr. Ferguson said.
The district’s own research also turned up differences in mobility rates between student racial groups. Two-thirds of African-American kindergartners, one study found, had moved out of the district before reaching 8th grade. In comparison, only a third of the white students left over the same time span. It’s harder for students to keep up in school when they have to move to schools that aren’t on the same page—or even in the same textbook.
But John Jackson’s success suggests there is still cause for optimism. Both of his parents are college-educated, and they were savvy enough to push for him to be placed in enrichment and honors classes as early as elementary school.
Yet he remembers how uncomfortable he felt to be the only black student in those classes, the kid who was left out when students broke into study groups or chose lab partners.
“I used to think white kids were smarter than me,” he said. Over the years, though, he learned differently. “Now I’m ashamed I ever thought that.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Even in Well-Off Suburbs, Minority Achievement Lags