Black Like Us

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Alarmed by the academic divide between whites and minorities, two top-notch students encourage other kids to follow their example.

Growing up, Shanti Hubbard was surrounded by a family that put a premium on education. The daughter of an anthropologist and a doctor, Shanti saw firsthand how schooling can pay off. The lives of her grandparents, meanwhile, offered inspiring testimony of how education can bring success in life. Her paternal grandfather, raised by a single mother, became dean of student affairs at the University of Iowa; her maternal grandfather, the son of a postal clerk in southern India, immigrated to the United States to study and went on to become a physics professor at Syracuse University.

Naturally, Shanti is a standout student. A senior at Evanston Township High School in the Chicago suburbs, she’s headed for an Ivy League college next year. “I always had good grades in school,” she says.

Maya Evans, one of Shanti’s good friends, is another model student at ETHS. Born to two teachers, she skipped kindergarten and jumped into schoolwork with a passion. Nothing but an A or A minus would do for her. “I was one of those kids who considered homework cool,” she says. Like Shanti, Maya is poised to enter a highly selective college in the fall. But if Shanti and Maya have sped along parallel tracks toward promising futures, other students of color at their school have had a tougher go of it. As a freshman, Maya walked into the first meeting of her honors humanities class and scanned the room for another black face. “There was no one but me,” she recalls. “I stuck out.”

Some of Shanti and Maya’s minority classmates had shown great academic promise before high school but foundered at ETHS. “A lot of kids you just didn’t see anymore,” Shanti says. “They were stuck in lower-level classes. People fell in with the wrong crowd, or they just didn’t have high expectations for themselves. You heard that some of the girls got pregnant.”

In Evanston, a city that takes great pride in its integration efforts, the gap is particularly worrisome.

Shanti and Maya didn’t know it then, but they were confronting one of education’s most stubborn problems: the so-called “achievement gap.” That’s researchers’ shorthand for the disparity in academic performance between minority students—chiefly blacks and Hispanics—and their white counterparts. A nationwide phenomenon, evident in suburbs as well as cities, the disparity manifests itself in any number of measurements—from grade comparisons to enrollments in Advanced Placement courses to college-going rates. The gap is a decades-old problem, and though the 1970s and ’80s saw it narrow some, many schools still face a form of racial segregation that’s more subtle than any Jim Crow law yet powerfully destructive nonetheless.

In Evanston, a city that takes great pride in its integration efforts, the gap is particularly worrisome. The average white posted a 26 composite score on the 1998-99 ACT— nine points higher than the average black. Last year, blacks earned 75 percent of all Fs handed out at the school.

   It would be easy for Shanti and Maya to brush off such stats as somebody else’s problem. But they’ve decided they can’t just watch as others fall by the wayside. Earlier this year, they teamed up with a few other top-performing ETHS black students and founded a group called QUEST, or Questioning, Understanding, and Educating Students Together. The goal: to inspire African American 8th graders—the next generation—to do well in school and stay out of trouble.

   QUEST’s success hinges on the premise that top students can model to others what it takes to make it in high school. In monthly meetings that sometimes evolve into bull sessions, Shanti, Maya, and the other QUEST organizers talk the 8th graders through some of the pitfalls of high school academics and the teenage lifestyle. Such chats may seem tame fulcrums for change, particularly when districts and states are throwing money at the achievement gap through initiatives to cut class size, beef up preschool offerings, and improve teacher quality in inner city schools. Still, the QUEST leaders intend to make a difference. “This is our passion,” says Shanti. “None of us could have left high school without doing something about the problem of black achievement.”

Educators have been puzzling over the achievement gap since World War II, when the U.S. Army found that blacks scored lower on recruiting tests than whites. Today, the average standardized test scores of African American high school students are one-fifth lower than those posted by their white counterparts, according to Christopher Jencks, a renowned social policy professor at Harvard University and co-editor of the 1998 book The Black-White Test Score Gap. The gap appears before kindergarten and persists into adulthood.

Researchers have not definitively fingered a single cause of the disparity but offer a variety of theories.

Researchers have not definitively fingered a single cause of the disparity but offer a variety of theories. One of the most controversial suggests that black students fear that doing well in school will be construed by their friends as “acting white.” In a seminal study of a Washington, D.C., high school published in 1986, researchers Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu gave legitimacy to this idea. They found that black students “began to define academic success as white people’s prerogative and began to discourage their peers, perhaps unconsciously, from emulating white people.” Blacks who do want to excel academically often mask their achievements by becoming class clowns, seeking anonymity, or clinging to their identities as jocks, write Fordham and Ogbu.

Not everyone agrees. Critics of the pair’s work note that whites also disparage friends who do well in school, calling them “nerds” or “geeks.” In a more recent study, college professors Jens Ludwig and Philip Cook analyzed federal longitudinal data and concluded that blacks who do well in school face no more peer resistance than whites.

Still, some experts believe peer pressure must play some role in the gap. Ron Ferguson, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says that, in some cases, an accomplished black student will enroll in less challenging courses just to be with other blacks. “Or he won’t bother to try out the upper tracks, considering the kids there not to be cool,” Ferguson adds. “I’d expect this to be more the case in mixed, high-income schools.”

QUEST leaders say the pressure to “dumb down” is real for black kids at ETHS. Most of its 3,000 students come from prosperous neighborhoods adjacent to Northwestern University and Lake Michigan, while some reside in the poorer, largely black area in the west part of town. The enrollment is 48 percent white, 40 percent African American, and 7 percent Hispanic. One- quarter of the students are poor enough to qualify for the federal school-lunch program.

“It’s common to call a kid ‘white’ if he does homework or plays the violin,” says Wallace House, a senior who boasts a 3.5 grade-point average and is a starter on the basketball and football teams. “For many black kids, it’s like with crabs in a barrel. If one gets out, the others try to pull him back. Black kids don’t think they can achieve, and misery loves company.”

Maya and Shanti say they’ve largely escaped such peer pressure. Shanti, a petite, pretty girl with the lithe moves of the dancer she is, has been called “an Oreo.” But she says it doesn’t phase her. More troublesome for her have been ETHS teachers, some of whom, she claims, demand less from black students than whites. Once, when Shanti was planning her sophomore class schedule, her father had to stop by the school to persuade a counselor to let her carry a heavy load of math and science—coursework her parents felt was necessary to get into a prestigious college.

QUEST leaders say the pressure to “dumb down” is real for black kids.

Before founding QUEST, Maya and Shanti were active in ETHS and Evanston affairs. Shanti danced with a community troupe; Maya, who always seems to be smiling, was president of the high school’s NAACP Youth Council and taught arts and crafts at an inner-city housing project. But neither was an activist. Then, last spring, at an assembly organized as part of a school-sponsored week of activities focused on minority academic achievement, both girls recoiled when they heard that blacks that fall had received three-quarters of the failing grades at ETHS. “We were all shocked,” says Shanti. “We broke up into small groups to discuss things, and people were bitter and complaining. There was lots of finger-pointing.”

For weeks after the assembly, Shanti and Maya pondered the implications of the startling numbers. Evanston has long been considered a model of school integration; while other cities fought court-ordered desegregation, its leaders in the 1960s voluntarily backed extensive busing to ensure mixed-race schools. Yet the poor academic performance of ETHS blacks suggested to the girls that all was not well. “Evanston is supposedly this ideal, diverse place,” explains Shanti. “But if you look at how people socialize and relate, it isn’t diverse at all.”

Soon, the two girls found their chance to act. After the Columbine High shooting, a few weeks after the assembly, the local cable television station aired a community discussion that included Allan Alson, Evanston’s high school superintendent. Afterward, Shanti and some friends set upon Alson in the parking lot to talk about violence at ETHS. Shanti had never met the superintendent before; indeed, she had never even seen him. But she and the other students talked to Alson for 45 minutes, with the conversation eventually veering toward lagging minority achievement at the school. Pleased by the students’ interest, the superintendent invited them to join him for lunch one day.

Alson, the high school superintendent since 1992, has made closing the achievement gap a priority of his administration. One of the first steps he took was to report academic performance by ethnic group—a controversial move. “Truth-telling is integral to the solution,” he explains. Indeed, Alson admits that there may be something to Shanti’s claims that some ETHS teachers don’t expect much from black students. “Nobody is free of bias,” he says.

The school today boasts many programs targeted at minority students, including academic tutoring, summer prep courses, and classes to teach students organizational skills. Beginning in 1998, Alson moved to partner with 13 other relatively affluent districts—among them the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights; Ann Arbor, near Detroit; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and the Cambridge suburb of Boston—to share information about the gap and do joint research. Shanti and Maya began to hash out a plan of their own, meeting with the superintendent over brown-bag lunches in his office, an imposing, rectangular space featuring leaded-glass windows that overlook a grassy courtyard. Alson suggested some options—outstanding students could tutor others, he said, or seniors might mentor freshmen—but Shanti and Maya had their own ideas. “We didn’t want to be a homework help-time,” says Shanti. “We wanted to give advice and use ourselves as models.”

Over the summer, planning moved to student-run sessions in Shanti’s crammed living room in her east Evanston house. Eventually, two dozen ETHS upperclassmen—including the student council president—got involved. This group made two key decisions: First, that QUEST would target 8th graders with potential rather than make longshot efforts to help struggling students; and second, that QUEST would eschew traditional, one-on-one mentoring. “There are enough mentor groups out there,” explains Wallace House. “It seemed better to program kids for success than just give them somebody older to talk to.”

One morning in August, Shanti, Maya and the others presented a yearlong schedule of activities to Alson over doughnuts at the long table in his office. The superintendent was impressed. “I’ve seen many ventures proposed by kids,” he remarks. “What I worried about here wasn’t their commitment, but that they had bitten off more than they could chew.” In the end, Alson felt obligated to help the kids make the program a reality. “As an educator, you couldn’t ask for a better moment,” he says.

To kick off the program, QUEST leaders arranged a daylong bus trip to Evanston’s five middle schools to recruit 8th graders.

To kick off the program, QUEST leaders arranged a daylong bus trip to Evanston’s five middle schools to recruit 8th graders. Seventy middle schoolers signed up, most of them girls. Typically, only about 40 attend the meetings, which take place at least once a month in a large ETHS assembly room on late Saturday afternoons. Discussions cover serious topics. One fall gathering examined the achievement gap, while another steered the middle schoolers through course selection at ETHS. In January, the group took a field trip to the University of Chicago.

Meetings also feature fun. One winter gathering opened with Maya whistling for quiet. “We’re going to talk about stress, relationships and drug abuse—things you’re all sick of discussing, I bet,” she said. The middle schoolers, in jeans and Starter jackets, nodded dully. “Even high school kids are sick of talking about these subjects, but we’re going to do it anyway. But, first, let’s play a game.”

The game turned out to be a variation on musical chairs. The kids sat in a circle, with folding chairs available for all but one person. That person stood in the circle’s center and introduced himself. “Hi, my name is Raymond,” said the first boy, “and I’m wearing khakis.” With those words, everyone in khakis left their seats and scurried to find a new chair and avoid being left standing. The game continued, and the kids loosened up. Finally, Marcel Sallis, a short, forthright middle schooler exclaimed, “I’m Marcel. . . and I’m black!” Laughter erupted, and everyone bounded from their chairs and chased about to find new seats.

With the ice breaker over, the QUEST leaders turned to the evening’s main event: an informal talk by Maya, Shanti, and others with lots of inside dope on getting by in high school. “Find out the teachers who are easy,” said senior Ryan Nelson. “If you can get an easy A, that’ll help your grade-point average.” Shanti countered that easy courses don’t always pay off. Sometimes, she said, “hard teachers push and challenge you. If you’re falling behind, go get help.”

The ETHS kids also talked about how to juggle schoolwork and an active social life. “I go out on Friday and Saturday, and then I work all day Sunday,” said Shanti. “You have to prioritize your time to strike a balance.”

Maya then broke the middle schoolers into small groups, separating the kids by gender. Senior Alex Martin warned one group of boys about the distractions that await them at ETHS. “Girls will have you running around in circles, but you have to keep your head on straight,” he said. “You all probably know more about drugs and stuff than I ever did—and maybe you smoke a little bit. But be strong, whether it’s through church or praying before school. Something else: You’ve got to pick a good group to hang with here. You’re not going to make it on your own.”

Not everything has gone smoothly for QUEST’s organizers.

Not everything has gone smoothly for QUEST’s organizers. Proposed trips to see the Harlem Boys Choir and a performance of A Raisin in the Sun never materialized. Nor did a plan to tour the Northwestern campus. There’s also been criticism of the group at the school. In the fall, Donovan Burba, an opinion editor at the ETHS student newspaper, penned a column questioning minority-only programs aimed at the achievement gap. “In its hurry to make amends for past instances of racism,” he wrote, “society has installed an eye-for-an-eye system that would make Hammurabi jealous.” The column angered Shanti, who felt that Donovan had no real interest in joining the group. And “if the students in QUEST were white,” she added, “it wouldn’t work.”

Some 8th graders say they get flak for being part of QUEST. But many expect that the preparation will ease their transition to high school. Through the program, they’ve forged friendships with other like-minded middle schoolers—friendships they’ll need when they confront the brave new world of high school. And QUEST leaders get high marks for making the meetings a cool place to be. “It’s not like you go there with a pencil and a notebook—it’s fun,” says the 13-year-old Marcel. “If you want to know something, they just tell you. They’re giving us information about what the best path will be and how to stay out of trouble. It’ll make a difference.”

Though the QUEST organizers did not set out to build relationships with the middle schoolers, it’s happened nonetheless. “The high school kids have become like big brothers and sisters,” says a sassy girl named Sonja Mixon. Shanti, for one, has become close with fellow aspiring dancer Ashley Askew-Bell. Maya, meanwhile, has taken a special interest in Marcel and his friend Gordon Watt. “Those two boys are going to be my personal property for the rest of my life,” she says.

The QUEST program may be new to Evanston, but it has at least one antecedent. In 1990, a dozen teachers at Shaker Heights High School outside Cleveland enlisted some top-performing African-American juniors and seniors to help struggling freshmen through their first year. Members of the so-called Minority Achievement Committee—or MAC Scholars program—meet every other week with 60 freshmen, all students with C averages or lower, for inspiration and goal-setting. The scholars dress in coats and ties to show that the work is serious business. When report cards are issued, the freshmen must share their marks with the upperclassmen and explain how they aim to do better. A spring awards assembly honors the most improved.

As QUEST’s first year winds down, its founders are preparing to graduate and move on. The program’s future, however, seems solid.

The MAC Scholars are strong role models for the freshmen, says Jamil Smith, an early MAC Scholar and a University of Pennsylvania graduate who’s now an assistant motion picture agent with the William Morris Agency in New York. “You could show them a book or a movie, but if you stand in front of them—and make clear that you prevailed in the same circumstances—it’s more powerful.”

While the MAC program is widely regarded as a success—school officials say one-third of the group’s freshmen boost their grades over the course of a year—QUEST’s results can’t be measured yet. The 8th graders say they’re intent on getting into upper-level classes at ETHS, but so far, it’s just talk. “Our success may be that the 8th graders come to high school with a sense of how to negotiate the institution and a feeling they have at least the beginning of a network,” says Malykke Bacon, a QUEST adviser who is a popular ETHS teacher.

“This seems like a good thing to try out, and they’ll see what works,” says Christopher Jencks. “It could work out differently than expected. The program may reduce the drop-out rate or keep kids off drugs instead of increasing the enrollment in calculus.”

As QUEST’s first year winds down, its founders are preparing to graduate and move on. The program’s future, however, seems solid. Bacon says the program may expand next year to include a component for freshmen. Shanti and Maya, meanwhile, have asked three junior girls to take over QUEST’s leadership. Next fall, Shanti heads to Harvard; Maya intends to matriculate at Washington University in St. Louis. Both young women will leave ETHS satisfied with what they’ve accomplished. “The kids we’ve worked with have an overall idea of their goals now,” says Shanti. “They have the tools. Now it’s up to them.”

Vol. 11, Issue 8, Pages 26-29, 31

Published in Print: May 1, 2000, as Black Like Us
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