Honoring the honors program

A news story recently published in The Seattle Times put the number of African-American high school students accepted in this year's freshman class at the University of Washington at 118 from a total class of 5,000.

Furthermore, the article noted that this was a continuing negative enrollment trend since the numbers peaked in 1964. How can this be? I have a partial answer to why African-Americans are underrepresented at our state universities. A story from my years teaching at Meany Middle School provides the backdrop.

The honors students in the district's math program were issued the exact same textbooks as those students enrolled in regular math classes. The major difference between honors math and regular math was the amount and difficulty of the homework assignments.

The math books typically published two levels of problems-easy and difficult. Regular math students were assigned problems from the easy section, whereas honor math students were expected to complete both sets.

The daily lectures were qualitatively different: regular math classes performed mostly in group settings, while the lecture-method was practiced with advanced students.

Opening day of school that year was especially thrilling for me. I was returning to my "teaching roots" after retirement from decades spent in higher educational settings. I was very excited when I met two African-American girls in the honors program.

I knew from my years of employment in colleges and universities that female, African-American math/science majors were as rare as snowballs in Hawaii. My past experiences as academic dean of City University and Griffin College demonstrated how valuable African-American women are to campus diversity. I could envision them moving through the Seattle educational system, from the honors math program upward to a major university.

The class progressed as planned, save that the two young girls were unhappy about their first-quarter grades. I recall conversations we had. "We don't like to do all that extra homework just to get a C grade," the girls complained. "Why can't we be in the regular math class where we'd get A grades?"

"Well, the school tested you and thought you had the brain power to be in the honors class," I replied, "so let's go visit the principal, okay?"

The novice principal proved worthless. She applied today's prevalent and pervasive (and questionable) educational theory: kids should be happy and school was fun.

My jaw was agape. I telephoned the student's parents to plead my case for keeping their daughters in the honors math class. I recited data about minorities enrolled in science/math classes. I pointed out their wonderful future in college, the excellent jobs that would be available and the scholarships that could help pay tuition.

In the end, it was an exercise in futility.

I insisted on a face-to-face meeting with the parents at the school. They came reluctantly, the students arrived, a school counselor joined me and we all sat around the principal's desk. Everyone presented their case. At the end of the meeting, the parents succumbed to their daughter's wishes. The girls jumped with joy.

The principal ordered these two students transferred to one of my regular math classes. And I cried. Not with external tears of course, but within. Here was a complete failure to recognize talent, both on the parts of the parents and the administration. A failure to guide. A failure to nurture.

A couple years later I saw several of my former Meany Middle School students at Franklin High School. I was told the two girls had dropped out along the way. I'd guess that neither of them entered the University of Washington, though I can't be sure.

These talented girls, who I wanted to nurture as secondary school students, were allowed to wither on the vines of mediocrity. They were allowed by adults-people who should know better, who are paid to know better-to take the so-called easy route.

I suppose it's possible the girls eventually found their niche, and are living a good, productive life. If they are reading this column, I urge them to write me at this paper-fill me in on your lives, please.

A moral for this story: study is hard work. Committed parents must engage with the system. Self-esteem is earned by doing a task well. Good teachers know when they have unique students, and good teachers nurture that talent-of course, when they are allowed to, and supported in the endeavor.

In this particular case I fault our education system, which advocated on paper a policy of world-class schools but did little to implement that vision, even when faced with excited and dedicated teachers.

Enlightened voters must elect responsible board members, who in turn must hire the best superintendent possible-someone who will recruit quality principals. Until that happens, our schools will continue their 10-year ranking at the bottom in quality among the 50 states, as the current TV commercials sponsored by the teacher's labor union clearly report.

Bernie Sadowski lives in Magnolia. Write him at mageditor@nwlink.com.[[In-content Ad]]