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The St. Mary’s County chapter of the NAACP is renewing its focus on the minority student achievement gap and expanding its advocacy to include income disparity in the county, according to Andrea Bowman, the group’s new president.

Bowman and others in the local NAACP said they hope that by addressing some persistent core issues, including the lack of minority teachers, disproportionate discipline and income disparity, African-Americans would have a more equal chance of succeeding in schools and in life.

Bowman, who was born and raised in St. Mary’s County, said she came from “humble beginnings,” and started actively working with the local NAACP chapter about two years ago.

“I thought it was time to start giving back so others can have those opportunities,” Bowman, who now lives in Great Mills, said.

Bowman plans to continue to advocate for more diversity among school teachers and staff in St. Mary’s public schools.

“I believe there’s always room for improvement,” she said.

African-American students make up 18.5 percent of St. Mary’s public school students, according to 2012 data from the Maryland State Department of Education. Hispanics, Asians and other minorities make up another approximately 11.5 percent of students.

The local chapter of the NAACP in November 2011 outlined specific minority hiring goals for St. Mary’s public schools through a complaint alleging the school system is not in compliance with a state statute.

At the time, black teachers and other staff made up 7.1 percent of local educators, up slightly from six years earlier. The NAACP recommended a goal of having professional staff representation meet the black student population percentage of approximately 20 percent by 2014.

“I realize that 20 percent is probably hard to reach,” acknowledged Janice Walthour, the local NAACP’s first vice president. Still, she said, the number should increase over time.

Recruiting and retaining qualified minority educators is difficult as school systems essentially fight to recruit the relatively few minority teaching graduates from Maryland colleges each year, educators have said.

Bowman said she knows that Superintendent Michael Martirano and other school administrators are putting forth some efforts to increase the schools’ workforce diversity, including heavier recruiting efforts from historically black colleges and universities.

Bowman said the NAACP has and will continue to encourage efforts to develop “homegrown” teachers through programs for youth.

The group is also promoting more diversity in local government’s workforce to better reflect the county’s population.

The school system hired a diversity and equity specialist this school year to oversee diversity training for all staff members and develop lessons on diversity awareness for students. The position was added in part as a response to an incident at Leonardtown High School a year ago when a student fashioned a noose out of a rope, which was then used to taunt other students.

“I think we should be much further ahead,” Bowman said, added that she thought the response from the community, including the school’s principal, should have shown more outrage at the incident.

After years of advocating to the St. Mary’s school board, the NAACP plans to move some of its focus to county government, specifically the board of county commissioners, which needs to address systemic problems centering on income disparity, Bowman said.

They hope to garner recurring meetings to speak with the commissioners to voice their concerns, which include more county funding for education. The local NAACP has never had open lines of communication with county commission boards, Walthour said.

The group is advocating for county funding for nonprofit agencies through support of the newly formed Vital Community Connectors group. It is also supports an expansion to the local detention center to offer more rehabilitation options.

The NAACP supports reopening the Lexington Park library on Sundays; those hours were cut due to lack of county funding, Bowman said, and will host financial literacy workshops and other outreach activities for the community.

The group is keeping a close eye on the eventual displacement of residents living in a trailer park on Great Mills Road. The area is slated for redevelopment to include a medical park.

“They should have a right to live anywhere in this county they want,” Bowman said, adding that restrictions on where Section 8 housing vouchers can be used are detrimental.

Another issue that needs to be addressed locally is the disproportionate way discipline is handed out in local schools, Bowman said.

About 1 in 7 black St. Mary’s black students were suspended in the 2010-2011 school year versus 1 in 20 white students, according to school officials. About half of all suspensions given go to black students, although they make up less than one-fifth of overall enrollment.

“There are differences in the way we communicate,” Bowman said. Teachers and particularly school administrators need to be aware of this during discussions involving discipline, which are often already heated by their nature, she said.

Walthour agreed, saying that remediation and problem-solving skills need to be taught.

Both women said that while serious discipline cases should be met with suspensions, sometimes students could be unfairly targeted by teachers or administrators because of the color of their skin.

Walthour and Bowman said that some problems in schools can be traced back to parents, and that schools need to foster a better connection to parents.

Bowman praised Great Mills High School Principal Jake Heibel for recognizing that the school needs to find ways to connect to the community.

“We want diversity in our schools,” Walthour said. Students need to respect other cultures, and school staff need to identify and work to fix problems when they arise.

The group is planing to develop a youth program for high school students and college-aged adults to help train them to take more active roles in the NAACP locally.

Bowman said she wants to boost the group’s enrollment by getting “anybody, any race,” to join. Membership in the local NAACP chapter is at about 120 members. “We all share commonalities,” she said.

jyeatman@somdnews.com