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HBCU Education

Closing the gap for low-income high school students

Early college programs in Greensboro, North Carolina, schools have excellent graduation rates

A week after President Barack Obama addressed students at North Carolina A&T State University during a town hall meeting hosted by ESPN’s The Undefeated, the White House released the nation’s high school graduation rates, which have reached their highest point at 83.2 percent, an increase of four percentage points since 2010-2011. All reported groups of students, including African-Americans and Latinos, showed gains in graduation rates.

More significantly, young people of color narrowed the gap between themselves and their white peers. The graduation rate for blacks has increased from 67 percent to 74.6 percent and for Latinos from 71 percent to 77.8 percent. That’s the good news.

It was fitting that the student forum was held on the campus of North Carolina A&T, the nation’s largest historically black college or university (HBCU). North Carolina A&T has educated tens of thousands of African-American students over its nearly 125-year history and produces more black engineers than any higher education institution in the United States.

I had the pleasure of a front-row seat and listened to the important discussion on numerous topics, including My Brother’s Keeper — one of the president’s key initiatives for addressing the outcomes of boys and young men of color.

Due to time constraints in the hourlong town hall meeting, we did not have the opportunity to delve into the critical role of K-12/higher education partnerships in preparing students to earn a college degree, an important step toward moving out of poverty and into the middle class.

Throughout my 25 years in public education — the last five as superintendent of a large, urban school system and now as superintendent of one of the largest school systems in America — I have seen many initiatives aimed at improving our nation’s high schools. Many of these efforts have been innovative and some moderately successful. But far too many have failed, translating into lack of preparedness for college, work and citizenship for our most vulnerable children.

Limited access to rigorous coursework, individualized support and high-quality guidance services, as well as inequitable funding between poor and wealthier districts, plague the national educational landscape.

Nevertheless, school districts are working diligently to increase students’ college readiness and have developed powerful partnerships with colleges and universities to close the opportunity gap for low-income students.

The Guilford County Schools (GCS) system in North Carolina has established nine early college and middle college high schools on the campuses of University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) at High Point, Greensboro and Jamestown, and Guilford College. Three additional high schools were established at HBCUs North Carolina A&T and Bennett College. Seven of the nine high schools have a 100 percent graduation rate, the other two are at 97 and 98 percent.

The president’s efforts to improve access for students and to make two years of community college tuition-free have resulted in GCS’ participation in a grand experiment that allows students to take advantage of Pell Grants on our GTCC middle college campuses while still enrolled in high school. Clearly, participation in this early college high school that offers dual enrollment promises increased enrollment in four-year colleges, lower college attrition rates and better grades because of better preparation.

Such programs must be extended to far more students and additional partnerships, especially those with HBCUs. They should be encouraged, developed and fully funded. And while early college/middle college high schools are proving invaluable in and of themselves, the historic role that HBCUs play in the education of African-Americans is uniquely promising for high school turnarounds.

Consider GCS’ STEM Early College at North Carolina A&T. Besides 100 percent graduation and college acceptance rates, students focus on one of three science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) pathways: biomedical sciences, renewable energy or engineering. Students have won national NASA competitions, placed in the Real World Design Challenge, and participated in internships that increased awareness of global water use and promoted more effective use of water on the university campus.

The 2016 graduating class of 42 students earned $11 million in scholarships. Their peers at the all-male Middle College at North Carolina A&T earned an additional $5 million in scholarships. At nearby Bennett College, the all-girls middle college high school has been recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School and focuses on science and gaming. Students in all three schools graduate from high school after earning up to two years’ worth of college credits.

Educational opportunities helped families, changed history

Civil rights activist Roy Wilkins once said: “Nothing should be overlooked in fighting for better education. We must be persistent and even ornery at times: This will be good for the lethargic educational establishment and will aid the whole cause of public education.”

The struggle for access to education has been a seminal part of American history; the specific struggles of African-Americans are nothing short of inspiring.

My grandparents migrated to New York in 1939 — temporarily leaving my 4-year-old mother behind — to escape the vicious cycle of sharecropping in rural South Carolina, and to ensure my mother’s right to an education. Like my maternal grandparents, my paternal grandparents also traveled north to New York for a better life.

My grandfather came to the United States from Venezuela through Ellis Island. My grandmother migrated from Puerto Rico after the U.S. Congress passed the Jones-Shafroth Act. They too envisioned superior educational opportunities for their posterity. Their dreams became a reality, and their grandchildren earned numerous college degrees. This, however, is not the reality for many children of color in the United States.

During the colonial period, the education of enslaved Africans was encouraged in order to advance Christianity. However, South Carolina passed a law in 1740 making it illegal to teach slaves to write. To add to the blow, Nat Turner’s insurrection was the impetus for numerous additional laws restricting the education of African-Americans. Nevertheless, African-Americans were determined to learn to read and write. If caught, the punishment was severe and many suffered the cruel whip and/or barbaric amputations. Some were sold deeper South, and others lost their lives.

After emancipation, the formerly enslaved Africans attended makeshift schools by the thousands. John W. Alvord, the national superintendent of schools for the Freedmen’s Bureau wrote: “In the absence of other teaching they are determined to be self-taught; and everywhere some elementary textbook or fragment of one may be seen in the hands of Negroes.’’

In 2016, it is troubling to see the academic outcomes for students of color. Blacks and Latinos still underperform in comparison with their white peers on all educational measures in public schools. For African-American males, the situation is even more critical.

Today, nearly 1 million students drop out of high school each year. The dropout rates for African-Americans and Latinos are significantly higher than that for whites. The consequences are grave: poverty, unemployment, prison and even death. Besides improved life outcomes, the annual gross domestic product could increase by billions if we increased the graduation rate and college matriculation rate for all students in this country. And billions would be saved in crime-related costs, as well.

To add to the institutionalized barriers that many students of color face in public education and in their communities, too many of our young people have also internalized negative stereotypes about African-Americans.

In Multiplication is for White People; Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, author Lisa Delpit relates a story from a tutor about teaching math to a young African-American boy in Louisiana. The middle school student said to the tutor, “Why you trying to teach me to multiply, Ms. L. Black people don’t multiply; black people just add and subtract. White people multiply.”

Unfortunately, far too few students are able to take advantage of these schools because a sustainable funding solution is nonexistent. It is imperative that the Pell Grant program is extended to innovative, next-generation high schools that are preparing students to solve complex local, national and global problems. The use of Pell Grants by high school students is only one step. Funding innovative school startups must be the rule rather than the exception, and transportation barriers that keep students from participation in dual-enrollment programs must be eliminated.

I feel confident that we are creating clear pathways and experiences for students to be successful in school and life — an endeavor that will only strengthen our great democracy. The question remains: Do we have the will to expeditiously make this a reality for all?

Sharon Contreras is the superintendent of Guilford County Schools in North Carolina, one of the largest school systems in America, and has worked for 25 years in public education.