Pressuring the Gap

Ohio tries to close achievement gap by focusing on 9th-grade males

By Fred McKissack

Illustrator: Alain Pilon

Illustration: Alain Pilon

It’s not as though C.J. Prentiss hadn’t been in this position before, trying to figure out a way to close the cavernous education achievement gap between African Americans, particularly males, and their white peers.

Moreover, it’s not as if educators haven’t heard almost non-stop talk about the achievement gap. What’s different is Prentiss, a long-time civil rights activist and former state senator from Cleveland, is taking a different approach than many others. First, she’s focusing specifically on 9th-grade boys who exhibit behavior that makes them more likely to drop out of high school than finish; freshmen year is a make-or break time in their lives. Second, Prentiss is talking community mobilization, shared responsibility, and pegging measurement to the most meaningful element: high school graduation rates. At a time when the NCLB-inspired emphasis is on narrow test scores, Prentiss’s broader approach is, for some, a breath of fresh air.

The achievement gap is a crisis that goes beyond test scores and sheepskins. According to a 2006 New York Times story, 60 percent of black male dropouts in their 30s had spent time in prison.

In March, Ohio’s Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland named Prentiss his special representative for closing the achievement gap, primarily for her political acumen and her decades of experience working on education issues. When she was a state senator, Prentiss served as the minority whip, was the ranking Democrat on the education committee, and chaired the National Black Caucus of State Legislators’ primary and secondary education committee. Prentiss has taught at many levels from preschool to college, and helped found the National Coalition of Education Activists and served on its steering committee from 1996-1999.

Prentiss has spent years attending conferences, writing and reading reports, making stump speeches on the importance of education and closing the achievement gap to her constituents and colleagues, and bartering behind closed doors in the state capital, Columbus. Unfortunately, despite the talk, there’s been very little progress. Today, in Cleveland, one in three black males graduates from high school. Statewide, there is a 24-percentage-point gap in graduation rates between black and white males.

With all the bad news, why is Prentiss so hopeful about the future? A mixture of apathy and lack of political will have always been issues in the past, but this doesn’t appear to be a problem now. A $20 million, two-year appropriation from the state to fund an innovative initiative aimed at 9th-grade males is a start.

Prentiss’s strategy differs from past proposals, in that the plan specifically targets freshmen boys-although due to government regulations, race is not a consideration-at 33 Ohio high schools with high dropout rates. The young men have at least one of the four risk factors for dropouts: they’re overage; they’ve failed two major courses the previous year; they’ve been suspended; they have a record of low attendance. In Cleveland alone, there are around 1,800 students who fit the category. For the next two years, Ohio is spending approximately $1,500 per year, per student involved in the program.

The benchmark: Prentiss is interested in seeing how many students in the program earn enough credits to move on to the 10th grade. Funding runs out in June 2009, not enough time to acquire longitudinal data, but she hopes to have enough incremental figures to warrant more funding.

At the school level, each building has a state-funded coordinator who is specifically in charge of the program. Every student in the program is assigned an adult “personal motivator,” who meets with the student at least once every two weeks to listen, guide, and encourage the child to stay in school and earn the required credits for promotion to the next grade.

Each school also has a “graduation action team” – made up of people ranging from social services and the private sector to teachers and student-mentors-that will “dialogue every two weeks about the progress that is being made,” said Prentiss.

Parental engagement centers on helping the parents deal with the child’s problem behavior. In her research, Prentiss saw instances when the already overburdened juvenile justice system and social services agencies were called in by frustrated mothers who felt they had no recourse but to call the authorities.

A major component of the plan is changing the school climate by requiring professional development in the area of cultural competency. Ninth-grade teachers ought to have lesson plans that are relevant to the child’s life, Prentiss said, but teachers should also understand the intellectual development of teenagers. Generally, she said, teachers do not share the same value system and are rarely from the same socioeconomic class as their students. “And that includes black teachers as well as white teachers,” she added.

In various studies concerning the achievement gap, there is one familiar call to action: the need for more African-American male teachers. According to the education journal Catalyst Cleveland, 35 percent of students in Cleveland public schools are black males, while just 6 percent of teachers are black males. When asked why this isn’t a cornerstone in her plan, Prentiss acknowledged the need for more black teachers as role models.

“It’s a goal,” said Prentiss. “But given the fact that we’re not going to get them anytime soon, what do we do in the meantime, when 80 percent of students coming out of schools of education are white females?”

Prentiss’s faith in the plan is based on the groundswell of community activism to face the graduation problem since she took the job as the governor’s minority graduation czar. Before Ohio’s legislature ratified the state’s biennial budget in July allocating funds for the program, Prentiss said she noticed a change in attitude and an increased sense of urgency during a daylong Governor’s Conference on Increasing the High School Graduation Rate for African-American Male Students. The May 30, 2007, conference attracted over 2,000 teachers, principals, parents, businesspeople, and ministers from around the state. The attendance figures were beyond expectations, probably because Prentiss logged over 3,000 miles crisscrossing Ohio in the month prior to the conference outlining the agenda for mayors, superintendents, ministers, union leaders, parents, educators, and civic leaders.

“Frankly, history was broken, in a sense,” said Prentiss in a recent phone interview with Rethinking Schools. “In my whole political career-in the 22 years of being down here in Columbus-I had not experienced this kind of gathering of African Americans on any one issue. I’ve never seen them come down for this on the issue of health or the issue of criminal justice. The outreach was just tremendous. The amount of black men in suits was just absolutely amazing.”

The most productive work came during an afternoon session at the May 30 conference, where action plans were created for the 33 schools in the state with the highest dropout rates. In July, during the state’s budget session, she hit the road again, this time focusing on target schools in the Ohio 8 Coalition, a strategic alliance of superintendents and teachers’ union presidents from the eight urban districts responsible for nearly 240,000 students. In public information sessions, she presented data and sought comment. Again, Prentiss was surprised by the community response, where it was not uncommon to have 100-plus attend a session. The resonance of shared responsibility discussed at the governor’s conference hadn’t dissipated in the intervening weeks.

“I said we didn’t have time for blame,” she said. “Everybody has a role-we must share the responsibility and act. It’s not just about principals and teachers, but the kids, the parents, the church, the business community, the social service community, everyone needs to be a part of this to make it happen.”

Not new words, but apparently the combination of timing and the truth of the words may have finally penetrated through to enough people from the classroom to the boardroom to Columbus’s backrooms that inaction was no longer an option.

Fred McKissack is managing editor of Rethinking Schools.