ROCKVILLE – Segregated high schools are a thing of the past, but minority students nationwide still enroll in challenging classes, graduate, and go on to a college at a far lower rate, a phenomenon referred to as the “achievement gap.”
Last Sunday, about 500 students from the MCPS Minority Scholars Program marched from the Carver Educational Center on Hungerford Drive to the Montgomery County Courthouse in Rockville Town Center to raise awareness of this issue and call for solutions.
The Minority Scholars Program began in the mid-2000s when Mike Williams, a social studies teacher and athletic coach at Walter Johnson High School, was asked by that school’s principal to look into some disturbing academic statistics. Representatives from Morehouse College, an all-male, historically African American college in Atlanta, had visited WJHS to offer a scholarship to one of its students, but not a single African American student met the minimum 3.0 GPA requirement for the scholarship. Furthermore, an examination of the school’s yearbook indicated that minority students were not actively engaged in the campus cultural life.
Williams and his colleagues identified a number of social factors as being responsible for this disparity. Minority students said they felt isolated and unwelcome in advanced classes. Additionally, as Williams noted in his remarks to the marchers on Sunday, certain layers of the student population regard excelling in school as “acting white.”
The Minority Scholars Program aims to counteract this ethos largely with positive peer pressure, encouraging minority students to take pride in their academic accomplishments and to enroll in challenging courses. There are now MSP chapters in 11 schools, with each school tailoring its programs to meet its student body’s individual needs.
Williams, who remains the WJHS MSP program coordinator, said the program has had a positive impact on students.
“In the last five years, the culture at WJ has changed tremendously,” Williams said. “It’s far more inclusive, and there’s less feeling of isolation. More minority students are taking challenging classes and participating in extracurricular activities.”
At Sunday’s march, students carried signs saying “Close the Gap” and chanted “MSP speaks for me” and “Si Se Puede.” In his remarks from the courthouse steps, Williams likened the assembled students to activists of the American Civil Rights movement and other student movements worldwide.
MCPS Superintendant Joshua Starr praised the students’ efforts and urged them to persist in providing positive encouragement to their fellow students.
“The gap is not going to close through any fancy program. It’s not going to close if we buy everybody lots of technology,” Starr said. “It’s going to close when each and every one of you continue what you’re doing today, you continue working hard, and you do what is so important for each and every one of our kids, and that’s instilling hope.”
“Getting more minorities to take harder classes means that in the future, we will see more minorities in higher places,” said Darren Crawford, a Walter Johnson senior who participated in the march.
Crawford said that he would decide that day which college he would attend in the fall.