The road less traveled

Emeline Cokelet

When JoAnn Bolude walked into her first freshman honors class at Evanston Township High School, she was hoping to see more black faces in the myriad of students that greeted her.

But instead she saw an array of faces that hardly differed from those that had surrounded her during her previous two years of private education at a nearby middle school. They were the faces of students she knew were at her same academic level. They were the same faces of the kids who outnumbered minorities in after-school sports. They were the faces of students who earned more A’s and B’s on average and scored higher on tests than minority students.

And they were the students that anchor one end of the spectrum reflecting a longtime racial gap in national student achievement.

It was 1994, and these were the white students who would outnumber Bolude and other minority students in honors classes throughout their four years of high school.

Now a Weinberg junior, Bolude has seen this so-called “minority achievement gap” play out time and again in white-dominated classes since she left her predominately black public elementary school in Chicago and moved to Evanston in 1992.

“If anything, I was always one of the few,” Bolude said. “I was so happy to be going to ETHS because I was like, ‘Finally I’m going to see more black people!’ But when I got to my classes, it was the same thing: one or two black people and the majority white.”

Bolude’s experience is not much different from most high-achieving minority students in urban high schools around the country. For years educators have tried to pinpoint the reasons this phenomenon exists – why blacks and Latinos stay in regular classes at the high-school level while their white peers excel in honors and Advanced Placement programs. There is no clear answer, educators argue, citing lower socioeconomic levels, a lack of parental support and a lack of minority role models as reasons why minority students are lagging behind whites in academic achievement.

But Project EXCITE, a joint program started in January between NU’s Center for Talent Development, Evanston/Skokie School District 65 and Evanston School District 202 (ETHS), is trying to address the gap by focusing more on intellectual capability than socioeconomic factors. Project EXCITE targets development of elementary-aged minority children’s math and science skills, follows students from the third grade through the ninth grade and prepares them for higher-track math and science classes when they reach high school.

By the time this year’s initial class of Project EXCITE third-graders enters ETHS in 2006, the school’s higher-level math and science classes should better reflect the school’s – and Evanston’s – racial breakdown.

“The hope is that we will see a dramatic increase in the number of minority students in the high-track math and science classes,” said Dr. Bessie Rhodes, coordinator for Project EXCITE through the CTD. “The goal is to ensure that minority students have appropriate representation.”

Breaking down The Gap

The nearly 3,000 students who comprise the ETHS’s student body are mostly from Evanston, where minority populations are slightly lower than those of the high school. A 1998 population report estimates Evanston has 72,000 residents, according to the city’s Web site. As that number increases, so will the percentage of minorities in the city. In 1998, The Chicago Reader published census data and projections by Claritas Inc., a marketing research firm, which declared that Evanston will be about one-third black by 2002. In the same time, the city’s white population will drop to 54 percent.

On paper, ETHS’s racial figures seem to represent accurately the families that live in Evanston:

o 48.3 percent of daytime students enrolled in the 1999-2000 school year were white, according to the superintendent’s annual report for that year.

o 40.2 percent of daytime students enrolled were black.

o 7.2 percent of daytime students enrolled were Latino.

o 2.8 percent of daytime students enrolled were Asian.

o The remaining percentages identified themselves as Native American or multiracial.

But these numbers don’t reflect minority enrollment in ETHS’s math and science programs, taken from the Project EXCITE proposal. Blacks and Latinos comprise about 5 percent of the students in the school’s prestigious Chemistry/Physics Program, 11 percent of the Multi-Variate Calculus class (the highest math class possible at ETHS) and 8 percent of the BC Calculus class.

Math teacher Julie Carey clearly sees this disparity in the four courses she teaches at ETHS this semester. In her freshman honors algebra class, just two of the 30 students are black, while in her regular-level geometry class, the students are equally balanced racially, she said. But in Human Endeavors, a lower-level math course for juniors and seniors who aren’t prepared to take Algebra II, Carey said only four of her 40 students in two classes are white – and most of those minority students are black.

“The gap definitely exists, and we talk about it in faculty meetings,” Carey said. “We talk about why it exists and what we’re going to do about it. Teachers say, ‘I don’t know why it happens, but it does.'”

A telling statistic for teachers is a quarterly school report card that breaks down students’ grades and test scores by race. It always points to one student, Carey said: The black male is the low-achiever.

The First step

Representatives from D65, ETHS and the CTD propose targeting minority students as early as possible. With funding from NU and D65, that proposal became a reality this year.

“It’s really a very simple design,” said Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, director of the CTD and author of the project proposal presented to the schools. “The idea is to catch them early and identify children in non-traditional ways.”

To acheive that goal, starting in January, Olszewski-Kubilius and Rhodes asked teachers of third graders and principals at four participating elementary schools – Orrington, Lincoln, Timber Ridge and Lincolnwood – to nominate for Project EXCITE minority students who were “very inquisitive, curious, and seemed to be working on a higher level in terms of their problem-solving skills,” Olszewski-Kubilius said. “We cast a wide net, which means if there was any doubt, we included a child rather than not include them.”

The 55 or 56 students nominated were narrowed down to 24 program participants based on a non-verbal skills test, Olszewski-Kubilius said. Research shows that this type of test is a better indicator for minority students’ cognitive abilities than other tests might be, she said. Instead of using language, the test presents students with a series of pictures. The student looks at a design and identifies how it changes from one frame to the next, then picks a design to complete the final frame.

“The math teachers felt this test picked up on a problem-solving skill that’s really important in mathematics,” Olszewski-Kubilius said.

An Early Start

Math and science teachers from ETHS, seeing a trend from year to year of minorities vastly underrepresented in their classes, originally initiated Project EXCITE, said Barbara Hiller, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for D65. ETHS teachers who taught summer courses for younger students through the CTD wondered if a similar program could identify academic talent earlier among minority students.

“National research shows that kids tend to lose ground at third grade no matter who they are,” Hiller said. “Starting at third grade is a way to look at the issues very differently than we already have.”

Teachers from the high school and participating elementary schools had their first meeting with Project EXCITE students on March 6, giving a hands-on lesson in wave motion, Olszewski-Kubilius said. About every two weeks until the end of the school year, the third-graders will spend one to two hours working on advanced math and scie
nce at ETHS. Currently, four ETHS teachers, four D65 teachers and two CTD staff members volunteer their time for the program, said math teacher Ron Sellke. Fifteen ETHS students also help out with the program, staying after school to work with the Project EXCITE participants.

Sellke, who has taught at ETHS for 15 years, said the educators try to get students energized about higher-level math and science. The third-graders have used everything from lasers and springs to water tables and Legos to learn patterning in math. And the teachers are enjoying themselves, too, Sellke said.

“The teachers have all said it’s fun for us to do,” he said.

Beginning in the fall, the students will take Saturday Enrichment Courses at ETHS. In sixth, seventh and eighth grade, the students will enroll in CTD summer programs at NU, where they will take math courses preparing them for Algebra I Honors and lab science courses, with biology and chemistry completed by the end of eighth grade.

In addition, students and their parents who show a commitment to Project EXCITE will receive home computers. The project is free for all participants.

“At this point the main goal is to excite them about math, to make them see that it’s not so far removed from their world,” Olszewski-Kubilius said. “What we’re trying to do is help kids qualify for the advanced classes that already exist.”

Some students in D65 already are taking algebra and geometry in seventh and eighth grade, she said. When they enter ETHS, they will be put on an honors track automatically and may never take a non-honors class. Those who don’t start freshman year on the honors track may have trouble moving up to higher classes.

Getting on track

Bolude and Bridget Igoe, who graduated from ETHS in 1999, both started at ETHS their freshman year on the honors track after attending Baker Demonstration School in northeast Evanston. Math was always one of Bolude’s strongest skills, she said, but she was placed in the lowest math group at Baker and started in the regular track for math courses at ETHS. But her other classes were all honors, she said. Bolude took geometry over the summer to advance her to the math level she desired for her senior year.

In contrast, Igoe started on a full honors track and was taking AP courses by her sophomore year. “I never took a regular class,” said Igoe, a white student who is now a Weinberg sophomore. “Freshman year, if you’re not put in a certain type of class, you will stay in whatever track you’re put in.”

Igoe’s honors classes were “pretty diverse,” she said, but in her AP classes, only four or five students in a class of 30 were not white.

Meghan Haynes, a 1997 ETHS graduate, also transitioned from a private middle school to ETHS, where she felt the pressure of being a high-achieving black student in a predominantly white environment.

“If you’re a black student, you can’t be serious about academics at ETHS,” said Haynes, a Medill senior. “If you shine, if you improve, then you’re an anomaly.”

In the school’s effort to promote minority student achievement and bridge the achievement gap, Haynes was identified by then-assistant to the superintendent Jason Edgecomb as a “top-achieving minority student” her junior year, she said. She was in the top 10 percent of her class and the top 5 percent of minority students at the school. Haynes took surveys about her study habits and consulted with Edgecomb about her achievements.

“For me, it was important (to look at the gap),” Haynes said. “You can’t help but look around. I’d be one of one or two black people in my classes.”

“I think any minority student is conscious of it when they step foot in their very first class,” said Jessyca Latimer, a 1999 ETHS graduate and Weinberg sophomore.

Like Haynes and Igoe, Latimer saw her freshman-year track – mostly honors classes – carry her to higher-level classes and on to a good university after graduation.

‘Intimidation factor’

Haynes said she sees other minority students place a sort of taboo on honors and AP classes, and this may prevent them from enrolling in these advanced courses.

“I just feel like, with my friends and a lot of black students, there’s this whole intimidation factor, like it’s hard, it’s challenging, you’re not going to be able to handle it,” Haynes said. “But let’s get real. People tell you it’s hard, but it’s really not. It’s just an extra paper.

“I think for a lot of black students, a lot of it is the comfort level,” she said. “They don’t want to be the only black students in classes, but they don’t want to be alienated from their friends. Who wants to be the only black person in their class? You can’t really blame them.”

Project EXCITE will address precisely that comfort level and intimidation factor among young minority students, Rhodes said. The groundbreaking seven-year program will also tap into parental support and capitalize on what Haynes says is of utmost importance in black cultures: the value of education.

“My mom’s favorite line is, ‘Your only job is to get good grades.’ That’s what you have to do,” Haynes said.

ETHS in recent years has made steps toward promoting minority achievement. D202 Superintendent Allan Alson in 1998 moved to partner with 13 other school districts nationwide, including schools in Cambridge, Mass.; Berkeley, Calif.; and Oak Park, Ill., to form the Minority Student Achievement Network. The districts share resources and information about the achievement gap. Alson’s consortium helped form the roots for Project EXCITE, Olszewski-Kubilius said.

Students at the high school in 1998 teamed up to start QUEST, or Questioning, Understanding and Educating Students Together. The program, geared to inspire eighth-grade black students to do well in school, also works in conjunction with Project EXCITE to assist the teaching and mentoring of younger minority students.

And individuals like Bolude and Haynes try to encourage higher achievement among minorities whenever they can.

“I used to tell people to take higher classes (in high school),” Bolude said. “It’s easier to work your way from the top down to the bottom than from the bottom all the way to the top. It’s better to just put your foot out there and try. If you’re going to try and fail, that’s better than not trying.”

Project EXCITE is extending this philosophy to kids who otherwise might not share Bolude’s attitude. Rhodes has dealt her whole career with minority parents who wonder how they can get their kids to reach higher levels; she hopes the project will cause a dramatic increase in the number of minority students in higher-level math and science classes at ETHS. By catching children at a time of educational choices, the project will allow students who otherwise might be lost without the project to excel, Rhodes said.

For students like Latimer, who grew up knowing they would push themselves as far as possible, that turning point, that higher-achieving mentality, is still an integral factor in their educational success.

“The point for me was just entering high school, having to grow up and deciding whether or not I wanted to be like the people around me,” Latimer said. “I had to choose whether I wanted to be one of the successes and get out of here. At high school it’s just so fun and laid back; if you get pushed on the wrong track, you stay there.” nyou

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