Challenging Kids to Achieve

Kathleen Schuckel
January 13, 2003


Dr. Eugene WhiteIt was a few weeks into the new school year, and Washington Township Superintendent Eugene White was frustrated. He knew he needed to do something brash to make North Central High School students wake up to a crisis. So, he quietly worked with a few educators to prepare an invitation-only convocation. As the 600 students left class for the event on Sept. 4, 2002, it was clear they had two things in common: They were black, and they were male.

And they figured they had to be in trouble, big trouble. They were right.

Yet their troubles weren't unique to their school, one of Indiana's largest with 3,200 students, about 35 percent black. The North Central crisis mirrors what is happening at schools nationwide. Black students, on average, have lower grades and test scores than whites do. African-American boys perform the worst.

And that's why the superintendent singled them out—to reprimand and challenge them.

"Right now, we're putting too many things ahead of education," said White, ticking off some of them: clothes, jobs, partying. "Forty or fifty years ago, we recognized that education was what we needed to progress and succeed."

The Message and the Messenger

White presented the students with a Power-Point presentation—beginning with a quote from Frederick Douglass: "If there is no struggle there is no progress."

Then he revealed the grim statistics:

  • Only about 43 percent of black male North Central students passed language arts and math in Indiana's statewide testing for sophomores. (About 88 percent of white students passed.)
  • Black male grade-point averages were C or C-, compared to white student B or B+ averages.
  • Black male students had more expulsions and suspensions than any other group of North Central students.

After the convocation, the school district sent letters home to the boys' parents. They asked the parents to do 13 things. Among them:

  • Eat one meal a day with your son.
  • Have him explain one assignment from each class each week.
  • E-mail or call each of his teachers and give them your e-mail address and/or your work phone number.
  • Remind him that school is the No. 1 priority and limit his part-time job to 15 hours a week.

White expects people to listen when he speaks. He has a no-nonsense demeanor and is a towering presence in his habitual suit and tie—all 290 pounds and 6 foot 4 inches of him. And he knows about overcoming expectations. Growing up in poverty in segregated Alabama, the son of a single mother who worked hard cleaning houses, White was the first male in his family to graduate from high school.

Today, the 55-year-old White holds graduate degrees from Ball State University. He was the first black principal at Wayne High School in northern Indiana, and later the first black principal at North Central, where he oversaw $65 million in construction and pushed through a controversial policy requiring student athletes to maintain a C average. He served as deputy superintendent for Indianapolis Public Schools, the state's largest school system, before being lured back to Washington Township, where North Central is located, in 1993.

The city's two leading television stations—CBS affiliate WISH TV 8 and NBC affiliate WTHR 13—reported on the convocation. Channel 8 received several calls from outraged parents, charging White with racism.

White was unapologetic. When confronted with the accusation by a Channel 8 reporter, he replied that if singling out African-American students to improve their performance was racist, then he guessed he was a racist.

One mother, Etta Ward, told Channel 13 that she appreciated the superintendent's intentions, but not his approach. "To take a group of boys into convocation and say, 'You are this way because you did one thing or another' is not a positive approach that could have been taken."

Harvard University Professor Ronald F. Ferguson said there is danger in singling out black males at a meeting like this. After all, black females are struggling, too. Struggling students often share other defining characteristics, beyond race and gender—such as poverty and coming from a household headed by a mother who did not finish high school. All need extra attention to excel, said Ferguson, who has developed training and educational models to narrow minority achievement gaps.

One of the parents who complained to the TV station also called White and told him that her son shouldn't have been included because he has a B average.

"How many honor classes is your son taking? How many college prep classes?" White asked her. All students can do better, he told her. "I think she thought I would be afraid of Channel 8," the superintendent said later.

Aaron Shelby, a North Central staff member who works on programming for minority students, said it was important for high achievers to be there. "A lot of these men are future community leaders," said Shelby. "They'll be African-American role models and need to assume ownership of the problem."

A National Problem
North Central is far from alone. Data released in fall 2000 showed that nationwide, the gap between black and white student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress was greater than it had been in the 1980s, and the gap continues to widen each year. The disparity remains even when researchers control for socioeconomics and parental education. Researchers aren't sure why. Their theories include low expectations for black students by teachers and parents, underfunded schools, lack of structure at home and inferior teachers at schools with large black populations.

These studies and others have prompted several national reform efforts, including forming organizations of schools dedicated to sharing ideas that boost black achievement. Two such groups are the Network for Equity in Student Achievement, composed of large urban school districts, and the Minority Student Achievement Network, made up of schools in ethnically diverse small towns and suburbs. White's Washington Township isn't a member of any network, but administrators have traveled to Shaker Heights, a Cleveland suburb, to find out what they're doing to boost black achievement.

What the Kids Say

North Central kids have their own ideas about why black male students aren't doing better in school.

"I think a lot of it has to do with weed," said one.

"Too many are out until 1 on a school night chillin' with the boys," added another.

Ryan Sangster, a senior with a strong B average, said some guys sense that teachers have preconceived notions that black kids don't care about school. "They already think I'm bad so why not just be that way?"

Beyond the Lecture
White didn't just scold the students at the convocation. He pointed out opportunities for them to get free tutoring, take study-skill classes and learn conflict mediation.

North Central is also working to be more proactive to boost minority achievement among black and Hispanic boys and girls. Minority eighth graders with an average grade of B or above are invited to an evening meeting with their parents toward the end of the year, urged to consider taking accelerated classes as freshmen in high school, and told they will receive academic and social support from faculty, staff and students. The Center for Leadership Development, a civic group, has a program for black boys at the school, and a group of 15 black male faculty and staff advises students informally at least one morning a month.

"When you have high expectations, you have to have high support," noted White.

This extra support doesn't just help minorities either, said Judith Libby, North Central's coordinator for advanced-placement programs. "When you raise the expectation for any group, you're raising it for all groups," she said. "The message we're presenting is that every student should take the most challenging curriculum appropriate for him or her."

William Jenkins, a retired teacher who has written a book on how to boost black student achievement, applauded White's bluntness. "Black children have attitudes that keep them from succeeding at school and in life," Jenkins said. "You can't educate people against their will. Unfortunately, researchers often look at everything in a school except children's willingness to learn."

Influencing the under-achieving boys' parents to help is a special challenge, according to White. "No parent should ever leave education entirely in the hands of the school," said White. "I think parents drop out of school before the kids drop out of school." White plans a follow-up meeting with black male students and their parents on March 25. They'll look for improvement and discuss what else they can do to boost achievement.

Some students said White's message has already helped. "Personally, I needed to hear it" said Kyle Edwards, 17. "It just opened my eyes." The senior said he's since raised his GPA from a C+ to a solid B, a 3.0 on the district's 4-point scale. "Dr. White gave me something to work for. What college wants me if I just have a 2.5 or 2.6?"


  • For more information on William Jenkins' work on boosting black student achievement, visit his Web site.
  • Washington Township schools have their own Web site.
    The Minority Student Achievement Network has survey results and links to other resources on the issue of closing the achievement gap.
  • The Indiana Department of Education has an accountability system that provides a variety of statistics about schools and standards statewide.
Talk Back

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Kathleen Schuckel is an Indianapolis-based freelance journalist who has written for a variety of publications.