The first thing Morris Hudson did Saturday was apologize for “sounding like an angry black man.”
Hudson explained to the 150 people before him at People’s Community Baptist Church in Silver Spring that he is frustrated.
“I don’t just think about the achievement gap — I don’t stop thinking about it every single day,” he said.
Hudson, who runs a program called BROTHERS for at-risk students at Gaithersburg High School, was invited to the church along with other panelists to participate in Montgomery County Public Schools’ first Community Dialogue on Academic Success, in which participants were asked to discuss why black students achieve at lower levels than their white and Asian peers and what can be done about it.
Historically in Montgomery and across the nation, black students are less likely to score high on state tests, less likely to graduate and less likely to excel on college entrance and readiness exams such as SATs and Advanced Placement exams.
Timothy B. Warner, the school system’s new chief engagement and partnership officer, said he set up the meeting not expecting to solve the problem by the end of the day but rather to open a discussion.
The school system’s goal for more than a decade has been to close these gaps, even before federal mandate No Child Left Behind came along to do the same thing, according to a PowerPoint that Superintendent Joshua P. Starr presented Saturday morning.
Panelists agreed that black children need more role models “who look like them,” parents that hold them accountable for their academic success and a welcoming, supportive community.
At the end of the meeting, participants were scheduled to come up with “projects” to help address achievement gaps, and identify what resources, time and next steps the projects would require. Ideas from the meeting would be transferred to school system leaders to evaluate, Warner said.
This week, the school system will start recruiting a “task force” of parents, community members and school system officials who will consider the ideas, Warner said.
Warner called Saturday’s discussion “historic.”
“The achievement gap is a very old problem and a very complex problem,” Warner said. “The reality is, the approaches have never been head on. We come together to address this, using a grassroots approach, up.”
Some said they were impressed at the size of the crowd.
Ronnie Galvin of Impact Silver Spring, who sat on the panel, joked he hadn’t seen that many black people together in the county other than at worship and “the Red Lobster in downtown Silver Spring.”
Starr explained the existing gaps to the crowd. Most gaps widen as children get older. By the end of kindergarten, 74 percent of black students and 88 percent of white students can read simple text. In eighth grade, 38 percent of black and 74 percent of white/Asian eighth grade score advanced on state reading exams. For the classes of 2010 and 2011, 94 percent of Asian/white students graduated, and 81 percent of black students graduated, according to four-year cohort data.
Panelists explained their programs that are meant to address these gaps.
Hudson said every boy involved in BROTHERS has graduated high school.
Galvin said his organization has an after-school program that offers “organized sports and academic enrichment” to any elementary student who walks in the door.
The school system has made strides in closing gaps, said Yvonne Hudson, who retired five years ago after teaching for 43 years.
At Rock View Elementary, where Hudson taught for 14 years, gaps closed in part because the principal involved parents in discussions about academic expectations for their children.
That is crucial, she said.
Although some said Saturday that there need to be more black teachers and staff in schools to help black students succeed, Hudson said it is more about creating a welcoming environment for all students.
“They knew they were wanted,” she said.
Board of Education President Christopher Barclay emphasized the role parents play in their children’s education.
Barclay said his father set high expectations for him, and “still does.”
“Before Saturday morning cartoons, he was my first superhero,” he said.
But he also said that adults can make a difference in the lives of “other people’s children.”
Children should be surrounded by adults who care and who are holding children accountable, he said.
“We are not simply there to make the environment great for our children but for all children,” Barclay said.
Barclay said while these discussions have happened before, he was encouraged because this new approach will create actionable steps for the school system.
It is up to everyone — parents, school staff and the community — to see that kids succeed, Warner said.
“None of those can do it alone,” he said.