By Lolly Bowean, Tribune staff reporter. Freelance writer Brian Cox contributed to this report
Published February 15, 2006
Evanston-Skokie district's proposal targets achievement gap between blacks and whites
Hoping to better capture the attention of African-Americans and close the achievement gap between black and white students, a group of parents and educators is pushing for adoption of an African-centered curriculum in Evanston/Skokie School District 65.
The curriculum would keep state-required core subjects such as reading, language arts and math but include the history and culture of Africans and African-Americans in daily school lessons.
But while parents and educators across the district of 6,755 pupils agree that the achievement gap has to be closed, some voiced concern at a school board committee meeting this week that the proposal could further segregate the schools in a district that prides itself on diversity.
Supporters urged board members to launch a pilot program in kindergarten through 2nd grades at two elementary schools where almost half of the pupils are African-American. The program could start in the fall, though the school board has yet to vote on it.
If approved, the initiative would be rare for a suburban school district, according to experts, who say that Afrocentric courses are more common in urban schools with majority black populations.
What troubles school board member Jonathan Baum, who led Monday's committee meeting, is "how do we explain this to our children?"
Martin Luther King Jr. brought blacks and whites together, and the Afrocentric curriculum could mean that students would be separated based on race, because whites and Latinos may opt out of the classes, Baum said.
The idea behind Afrocentric curriculum is that the lessons focus on black students and, in addition to teaching them basic skills, build their self-esteem and confidence, said Cheryl Ajirotutu, an anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who is co-author of the book "African-Centered Schooling in Theory and Practice."
There is no standardized national or state curriculum; each district or school crafts its own teaching plan. The curriculum proposed for Evanston schools hasn't been developed yet.
In District 65, where about 44 percent of pupils are African-American, educators have tried techniques to bridge the achievement gap, but scores still reflect a divide.
Former school board member Terri Shepard, who now heads the curriculum panel for the African-American Student Achievement Committee, has monitored test scores for 20 years.
While 94 percent of white pupils in District 65 met or exceeded standards for 3rd-grade reading, only 47 percent of black pupils did, according to the latest Illinois State Achievement Tests. In 3rd-grade math, 96 percent of white pupils met or exceeded standards, and 69 percent of black pupils met standards.
"We all say we support diversity," she said. "For that reason, we want all the kids sitting together. But the statistics show having all the kids in the same room has not benefited students of color. Why not give these kids a chance to thrive?"
Schools with culture-based curriculums have become popular in major cities where blacks are in the majority of the public school population, such as Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, Ajirotuto said.
Now, "other school districts are wondering how do you turn the tide of school failure."
In Evanston, supporters, including the NAACP, have researched the topic for a few months, and although they have a general idea how the curriculum would look, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. They include who would be in charge of the program, how much it would cost and what effect would it have on the racial make-up of general-education classes in the district.
When Shepard visited Woodlawn Community School, a Chicago public school, she was impressed that state test scores have climbed since 2001.
"I always believed the reason white children achieved is because everything was for and about them," she said. "There was nothing that showed a child of color at the center. With an African-centered curriculum, the kids see themselves everywhere."
But there's no proof that the concept actually works, said Harvard University's Ron Ferguson, who teaches and writes about educational issues.
"It's not something to be afraid of or terribly enthusiastic about," he said. "They are groping for a way to get black kids engaged academically. If you get some charismatic teachers on board, you may get results. But those same charismatic teachers might try another technique and it would work too."
The subject is touchy in Evanston because schools there have been integrated since the early 1950s--before Brown vs. Board of Education desegregated the nation's public schools--and district officials have been careful to try to make sure all schools are diverse.
And though the pilot program would be implemented at Oakton Elementary School, which is 49 percent black, and Kingsley, which is 41 percent black, it could be divisive if only African-Americans volunteer for the program, according to some at Monday's meeting.
Baum, of the school board, questioned whether it was a good idea to start another experimental program at Oakton, which has an immersion program for Spanish-speaking pupils.
"I'm not saying [the curriculum] would not be a good choice for Oakton School, but there has to be a design that is a choice for everyone," said Candace Hill, co-president of the school PTA.
Chante Latimore, who supports the proposal, said that when she asks her 5-year-old daughter what she learned in class that day, she gets the same answer: "Nothin'."
Except during Black History Month in February, when Cheyenne Buford's eyes open wide as she tells her mother about Martin Luther King and Maya Angelou. "Then she remembers everything she learns," Latimore said.
She believes an African-centered curriculum would have that effect all year long.
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune