One of the things I have learned since moving here is that Arkansans are passionate about their sports! The state expects athletic excellence. In fact, when we don't get winners, we are upset. This ultimately begins a blame game, and we see coaches on the hot seat for not meeting the fans' expectations. This pressure has caused some coaches to be fired, and others to get out ahead of the axe. But we hold coaches accountable if they are constantly blown out, or annually produce losing seasons.
Unfortunately, this level of accountability is found only in athletics. But there is another kind of losing that goes on here, a kind of losing that sees large blowouts year after year and there is never any substantive discussion about holding anyone accountable for these losses.
I am talking about the achievement gap.
Recently, the Arkansas Department of Education released the 2007 School Report. I read through the report with interest and despair. In the Little Rock School District, 74 percent of white third graders were at least proficient in literacy, and 85 percent of them were at least proficient in math. Both scores were 31 points higher than that of black third graders.
Thirty-one points is a blowout, but it only gets worse. By the 11th grade, the black-white proficiency gap in algebra is 40 points, 49 points in literacy, and 50 points in geometry. The standard for achievement in Arkansas is proficient, but only 32 percent of black 11th grade students in the LRSD reach this level in literacy, and just 38 percent in algebra.
This is no game, and now the stakes have risen. New legislation requires students to pass End of Course exams in algebra, geometry, biology and literacy to graduate. Yes, the new law has essentially created high school exit exams. If you don't pass all four, you essentially earn a certificate of attendance rather than a high school diploma. With only 38 percent of black students at least proficient in Algebra, and no more than that proficient in any of the three other areas, you can guess how few students will be proficient in all four — and able to graduate.
We are on the cusp of a catastrophic drop off in black high school graduates in the Little Rock School District. In every state where high school exit exams are instituted, initially there is a significant drop in graduates. But there is no sense of urgency. We have been getting blown out awhile, and we have made no changes.
We need a coaching change. But which coach?
I say some parents, especially those who are just plain trifling. The home is where the fundamentals are developed so that the teachers can educate students. And yet something as simple as reading to your child every day does not happen, so many black kids are behind by the time they get to kindergarten.
Instead of us wrestling about policy, testing, or control, I am proposing a radical, cutting edge solution: public boarding schools. Several months ago, the Chicago Public Schools announced they would be launching these schools as early as 2009 in an attempt to hold students from dysfunctional homes. Superintendent Arne Duncan stated it bluntly: “Some children should not go home at night; some of them we need 24-7.”
They referenced the SEED school in Washington, D.C. (www.seedfoundation.com), and hired Josh Edelman, son of Marian Wright Edelman, who was the principal of the D.C. school which serves 300 7th through 12th grade students. The school opened in 1998, and the results are amazing: 97 percent of graduates are accepted to college, and 85 percent of alumni are on track to graduate.
We need public boarding schools in Little Rock. Yes, it is expensive, but I don't think cost is an issue as we continue to have proposals to build more prisons and then pay to house prisoners at a cost of nearly $20,000 a year. If we invested that money into young people who wanted to go to college, they would actually be able to pay that back in taxes from earnings and help to bring jobs to the region. Tax dollars for more jails is a waste of both human and fiscal resources.
So let's fire some parents. If we can create public boarding schools, we can have all of our students in the district be competitive, so that all will actually graduate from high school, and then move on to contribute to our community. Let's get the same kind of energy behind this movement as we do to change a coach, because winning academically is a life and death matter.
Really, it is the only game that counts.
Dr. Walter Kimbrough is president of Philander Smith College.