Two area high schools are trying a new approach to bolster test scores for struggling black and Hispanic students by offering them additional assistance programs aimed almost entirely at minorities.
Leaders at Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley high schools in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 say it's time to acknowledge and address the achievement gap between white and minority students in their schools and across the country.
And part of that, they say, is to admit that people of different races and cultures aren't all the same and may learn differently.
"(People of color) look in the mirror and see color, so we should see color and also acknowledge that and know that person is coming from a different experience," Neuqua Principal Mike Popp said. "We should recognize that and then we should make sure we're being sensitive to the way this person learns."
At Waubonsie Valley in Aurora, students now can take a new all-black ACT prep course. At Neuqua Valley in Naperville, black and Hispanic students can get help with their homework from other minority students through the Face to Face program.
Students who are not minorities are not barred from either of the groups, but they aren't targeted by teachers to participate, either. And not all students invited to join the program do so. Less than half of the 60 students who were invited to be part of the all-black ACT prep course accepted the offer.
During each of the past five years, black students were the lowest scoring racial subgroup on standardized tests at both schools.
At Waubonsie, on average, only about 29.6 percent of black students met or exceeded state standards in math during that period and only 38.5 percent met or exceeded standards in reading.
During the same period, on average, 72.7 percent of white students met or exceeded standards in math and 74.1 percent met or exceeded them in reading. Scores for Asians showed 84.3 percent met or exceeded standards in math and 78.1 percent in reading.
At Neuqua, about 47.7 percent of black students on average met state math standards while 54.9 percent met standards in reading.
On average, 77.8 percent of white students met standards in both math and reading. Among Asian students, an average of about 83.8 percent met math standards and 76 percent met reading standards.
The achievement gap is not a new phenomenon, but educators say they hesitated in the past to treat any student or group differently based in race.
Now, they say, the problem has continued too long to ignore.
"We've always been afraid to target an audience because some people, some constituents, would think it's not appropriate. But, yeah, you need to do that," Waubonsie Principal Jim Schmid said.
Reasons for the gap
For years, researchers have been studying the root causes of the gap in test scores between races. Lourdes Ferrer, English Language Learners and minority academic achievement consultant for the DuPage Regional Office of Education, has interviewed dozens of minority students about why they think their scores are lower than their white and Asian peers.
She says there are a variety of factors at play, including parents who may not be able to help because they themselves are uneducated or can't negotiate today's educational system.
Low self-esteem, low expectations and a lack of minority role models also tend to play into the equation, Ferrer said.
In addition, some black and Hispanic families may have different standards for academic success or different educational priorities, she said.
Many Hispanic families, for example, come to the United States for jobs and may see work -- and not education -- as the way out of poverty.
"If parents have not had the chance to succeed in school, it's harder for them to coach their children's academic life," Ferrer said. "It's clear the community understands (minority) parents love their children, but love sometimes is not enough to be a coach."
For Hispanic students, language barriers also may be an issue, she said.
All-black ACT prep
Waubonsie math teacher Natalie Johnson, who is black, started the school's all-black ACT prep class this fall after seeing year after year of consistently low scores from some black students.
"These students are not being successful for whatever reason, so the only way to figure out why they're not being successful is to isolate them and get to the root causes," she said.
"It's irresponsible to sit back and think everybody else will fix it."
In addition to learning the four basic skills on the ACT -- math, science, English and reading -- the 20 students in the class also talk about responsibility, leadership and self-discipline, as well as changing the negative perceptions people may have about them.
In a recent class discussion, students were talking about their goals and the importance of finishing high school and going to college. One student said his goal is to be a rapper.
"(Education) increases your chances, Mr. 'I'm going to get my GED and my goal is to make money,' " Johnson told him. "Well, you know what? There's a whole lot of people who are going to be rappers out there. What are you going to do to put yourself head and shoulders above people who say 'I'm going to be a rapper?' "
Students in the class say when they heard how far behind black students were performing on state tests, they thought they might be able to help improve the group's overall score.
Darrell Echols, dean of students at the school, has a daughter in the class and said he trusts Johnson and her instructional style. He believes if other interventions aren't helping to raise scores, it's time to try something new.
Echols said about 13 percent of the school is black. Many of the students were not raised in District 204 and are not used to being in a predominantly white environment. Being in an all-black class gives them an extra comfort level.
Junior Amber Sykes agrees and said she likes the open discussions and participation the class offers.
"We talk about things we're going through and how people perceive African-Americans and try to stereotype us," she said. "We just talk about a lot of things. A lot of things … we won't say it to any other teacher but if she (Johnson) asks us we'd be open-minded and tell her about stuff. It's like a big family."
Johnson says no one should think that comfortable atmosphere somehow translates into lax standards.
"Setting expectations will help them realize their potential and jump up and reach that bar," she said. "It's not going to be lowered."
Face to face
Last year, Neuqua teachers started a minority tutoring program called Face to Face in response to feedback from students at a diversity forum who talked about a lack of minority role models.
Roughly 25 black and Hispanic students serve as tutors twice a week after school to provide academic support and to be a mentor to their peers. Teachers recommend students both to be tutors and to get help from tutors.
Diane Tancredi, one of the group's founders, echoed the view that minority students feel comfortable working with each other and said it actually lessens racial tensions.
"They're not seeking help from white kids who know more than (they do)," she said. "It's their peer, their cultural identity. It's someone from their culture who is successful and says, 'yes, you can do this.' "
Two students who were tutored last year have returned this year, but this time as tutors.
Senior Julius "Trey" Bedford, one of the group's tutors, said there's sometimes a different mindset among minority students in a predominantly white high school.
"It's really easier to fall back into the background," he said. "But we tried to use resources through leadership sessions just to kind of convey that it's OK to do well, it's OK to try hard at school … try to make the most of what you have at Neuqua because it's your school as much as anyone else's."
With America's history of slavery followed by segregation, Ferrer acknowledges that targeting certain races for specific types of help may trigger some controversy.
But she applauds the two schools for taking a risk she sees as targeting, not segregating.
"I think what they're doing is targeting groups of students that have specific needs and challenges and providing services to get them to proficiency," she said.
Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, said it makes sense to offer struggling students additional time to work on their skills in an environment tailored to their academic needs.
"Being racially equitable doesn't mean treating everybody the same," he said. "It doesn't mean being race blind."
He said the way the program is run will be one of the keys to whether it helps students succeed or leaves them and others with a negative perception.
"It can be done in ways that are condescending and stigmatizing and it can be done in ways that are caring and uplifting," he said. "So the details matter."