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Event looks at black-white gap.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

With the 50th anniversary this month of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring segregation inherently unequal, there's been abundant reflection on how far the nation has come in the quest for equality in public education.

On Saturday, a conference at Sheldon High School will focus on an issue that underscores the continuing struggle to fulfill the promise of Brown vs. Board of Education: the achievement gap between black and white students.

"Our concern is, are our kids making it in the classroom?" said organizer Bahati Ansari, safe and drug-free schools coordinator at Jefferson Middle School and adviser to the black student union at Sheldon. "This conference will bring a lot of information to the table."

The conference's goals, she said, are to increase the level of parent involvement, boost awareness about the pitfalls facing black students and collaborate on new strategies involving schools, businesses and community.

With few exceptions, local statistics mirror national trends in academic achievement, even though the Eugene area has a comparatively small percentage of minorities. Blacks, Latinos and American Indians consistently post lower test scores and higher dropout rates than their white and Asian counterparts, and they are overrepresented in special education. A similar gap exists between low-income students and the general population.

In the Eugene district, for example, 62 percent of blacks met benchmarks on state reading tests averaged over 2002 and 2003, compared with 75 percent of whites. Blacks make up just 3 percent of the district's enrollment of 18,700.

The graduation rate in 2002 was only slightly lower for blacks than whites in Eugene schools, but in Springfield, it was 61 percent compared with 80 percent.

Narrowing the achievement gap is a goal of the Eugene, Springfield and Bethel school districts, all of which are co-sponsoring Saturday's conference.

In Eugene, the district has earmarked extra dollars for schools with large numbers of poor and minority students, and later this year will tackle a set of recommendations aimed at lessening socioeconomic disparities among schools.

Sheldon Principal Bob Bolden said the district is increasingly providing targeted programs and extra assistance where they're needed.

His school, for example, offers a black literature class and brings in community mentors. A Black Student Union, new this year, meets regularly.

"We still have a lot of our students who feel that this is a place that needs a lot of improvement, so we have a lot of dialogue going on," said Bolden, who attended virtually all-black schools growing up in Los Angeles.

Seli Thomas, Sheldon's Black Student Union president, plans to attend Saturday's conference, and hopes some good comes out of it.

Thomas believes that cultural stereotyping and ignorance exacerbate the achievement gap between whites and blacks, but said its roots may lie in a societal structure that favors whites.

"Life is like a race, and all the minorities are on the farthest back starting line with, like, five or six hurdles to jump over before they even get there," said Thomas, a junior who spent much of her childhood in Philadelphia.

Churchill freshman Faith Morris, who moved here from South Carolina in fifth grade, said she's learned little in school about black heroes or history.

More of that would help student achievement, she believes, as would the presence of more minority staff.

Saturday's keynote speaker will be attorney Marilyn Hutton, the National Education Association's point person on equal educational opportunities and affirmative action.

Hutton has been leading NEA activities recognizing the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

Other speakers and panelists include Robin Morris Collin, a professor at Willamette University College of Law; Kevin Fuller, who launched a "Rites of Passage" program for black youth in the Portland schools; and Johnny Lake, a diversity and leadership expert who was the community coordinator in the Salem-Keizer School District.

While the focus will be the black-white student achievement gap, Ansari said the conference topics will resonate with all minority groups.



When: 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Auditorium, Sheldon High School, 2455 Willakenzie Road

What: A free conference for parents, students, educators and community members. Free child care for children 5 or older.

Schedule: Continental breakfast 8 a.m. to 8:45 a.m.; registration 9 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.; keynote speaker and panel discussion 9:30 a.m. to 11:50 a.m.; lunch noon to 12:30 p.m.; youth, parent and educator workshops 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.; wrap-up 2:30 to 3:30 p.m.

For information and registration: Call 687-3669 or visit
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Title Annotation:Schools; The conference will focus on ways black students can improve
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 20, 2004
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