Opening doors, closing the gap

December 22, 2005
The Montclair Times


IMANI College Advocacy Center makes the grade

Imani means “faith” in Swahili. But experts, teachers and many parents know that it will take much more than faith alone to help end the academic achievement gap between African-American and Hispanic students and their Caucasian and Asian counterparts.

It takes, to paraphrase a popular African proverb, a village to help more of the African-American and Hispanic students fulfill their academic potential and go on to college.

And the IMANI College Advocacy Program serves as that village for Montclair.

Since 2000, IMANI, an acronym for Improving Montclair Achievement Network Initiative, has brought education experts, teachers, parents, guidance counselors and tutors together to construct effective solutions that empower students to achieve at higher levels and maximize their chances of benefiting from higher education.

The achievement gap, which reflects the disparity in the academic performance of students from different racial groups, is a national issue of great concern. As the National Education Association Web site states, “Closing student achievement gaps is one of the most pressing challenges facing public education.”

Society ‘Much Poorer’

While newly analyzed test scores data from the Montclair School District’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction was released this week “indicating that the minority student achievement gap is finally narrowing among elementary and high school students.” the need for parity remains urgent.

“We have a pervasive gap in performance,” said Terry Trigg-Scales, the school district’s director of curriculum. “It’s not as pronounced as it is nationally, and we have certainly seen some narrowing of the gap, particularly in language arts literacy and, for the first time this year, at the high school level. And we’ve reached an 80 percent proficiency level in mathematics.”

Though this progress is encouraging, the playing field is far from level. “African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are heavily underrepresented when it comes to earning college degrees,” according to “Reaching the Top: A Report on the National Task Force on Minority High Achievement,” published by The College Board. “It is widely recognized that these differences in educational outcomes contribute to large disparities in life chance. When a great many individuals — and entire groups of people — do not have a genuine chance to develop their academic talents fully, our society is much poorer for their lack of educational opportunities.”

With no single cause or cure for the achievement gap, said Mel Katz, principal of Montclair High School, “IMANI plays a major role” in the progress that is being made in Montclair.

Savvy Strategies

When “Reaching the Top” was published in 1999, it highlighted the fact that boys of color weren’t getting into college at the same rate as girls of color or students of other races were, and suggested “that one way to increase the number of high academic achievers from underrepresented groups may be to promote much wider use of out-of-school strategies used by the most educationally sophisticated or savvy parents and groups.”

Michael Osnato, then superintendent of the Montclair School District, responded to the “Reaching the Top” report by sending out a call to many African-American parents who had been successful with their children, Trigg-Scales said, and he asked them to help create a culture with study groups and after-school programs.

JoAnn McCullough, then a board member of the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence (MFEE), was one of those residents called into action. “Parents, community members and school district staff met to come up with a plan to help the district achieve their goal of closing the achievement gap,” McCullough said.

And as the parent of two daughters, she “was already interested that every student at the high school reached their full potential.”

In 2000, McCullough, working with a small group of parents and the Board of Education, formed the IMANI College Advocacy Center, where she now serves as director. IMANI is about much more than simply raising test scores, she emphasized.

It started with SAT preparation classes, and has grown to include study groups, one-on-one mentoring, information about and help with the college application process, summer programs, workshops and guest speakers, and trips to college fairs and college campuses.

The IMANI Center, housed in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 73 South Fullerton Ave., contains a library and computers for the college search and application process. Study groups and SAT preparations are held in Montclair High School after classes end, and in the Montclair Public Library on Sunday afternoons.

And while IMANI’s focus is students of color, it is offered to all MHS students.

IMANI works in partnership with the Board of Education and MFEE, which serves as its fiscal conduit.

“The results are very encouraging,” said Luis Shushinski, a retired officer and trustee of the Bestfoods Educational Foundation, which helps support IMANI. “I’ve heard kids say that if it weren’t for this program, they wouldn’t have gone to college. They wouldn’t have found their way. It’s wonderful to have this in Montclair.”

Study Grooves

The program tutors include MHS teachers who are familiar with the materials being studied, and parent helpers. IMANI study groups provide “a great opportunity for students to get extra help in a supportive community, making sure they understand the concepts° of their assignments, said Will Mellman, a geo-physical science teacher at MHS. Mellman, who worked with a quartet of students on chemistry and biology in a Sunday study session, said he hadn’t heard of IMANI before members of the group approached him a few weeks ago, but readily signed up to help.

Working with Mellman last week, Arielle Ellis, 15, said she comes to the IMANI study groups to improve her options.

“My grades were all right, but I wanted to push them up and get noticed,” Ellis said. “At first, I thought it would be boring, but when I started going a lot, I found that I could get more work done because I understood what I was doing, and I get more out of my classes now.”

Across the room, Krista Ross and Joseph Andrews, both 15, studied about Julius Caesar with several other students, under the tutelage of parent Carolyn Wells.

“”I came to the study groups last year to [get] help with a test,” Ross said, “and it helped a lot, so I decided to do it from the beginning this year.”

Andrews agreed. “It prepares you for what you’re doing for the rest of the week, and helps out with tests and quizzes, too.”

Parents can’t thank them enough, McCullough said. “The students are more enthusiastic about school, their self-esteem is increased and they’re willing to take more chances. Sometimes our African-American and Latino students want to stay in a safe place, they don’t want to reach further, and IMANI provides them with a safety net.”

Weighted for Success

Part of the need for programs such as IMANI is the increasingly competitive academic environment in schools such as MHS.

Nedra A. Clark is college transition counselor for MHS and school liaison for IMANI. She and McCullough work hand-in-hand to identify students who may be getting good grades in regular classes, but would benefit from moving to honors, high honors and advanced placement courses, where their grades would carry more weight.

“We started to target those students and put them in those higher-level classes,” Clark said. “[There] they probably can use some support, because they’re competing with kids who have been in those kinds of classes since middle school. The peer tutoring in the IMANI study groups is very effective.”

The weighted GPA means that a student who is earning a 4.0 in regular classes may perceive she is doing well, but might be only in the top 30 percent of the class, while an A in an honors course earns 4.5 points, and an A in high honors is worth 5 points.

It sounds like an oxymoron to say that students could get left behind if they’re making As and Bs,” Clark said. “But we have to make sure that a kid who has the potential to make As in the regular class has the chance to make As at the

higher levels.”

Results in Action

Jammal Day, a 2004 MHS graduate, is pursuing a degree in music business at Howard University, the nation’s largest public, historically black university in Washington, D.C.

It was IMANI, he said, that helped him get there.

“It made sense for me to get help for the SAT and SAT II, since the program was right there for my use,” Day said. “I saw a rise in my scores; I owe it to the program, because I wouldn’t have been doing as well on my own.”

IMANI helped Alexis King, who graduated from MHS in 2004, research her college options and make what she felt was a good decision. Now a freshman at Spelman College, a prestigious, historically black college for women in Atlanta, Ga., King credits the program’s staying power.

“I learned a lot of things about myself,” from IMANI, she said. “It’s helped me be more confident in college.” She stays in touches with the tutors she worked with as well. “It’s a great thing to know that so many people care and want you to succeed,” she said, adding that she encouraged her brother, Robert Austin King, 15, to get involved.

Because of IMANI, more students of color are attending such schools as Wesleyan University, Cornell University and Carnegie-Mellon University, options they may not have considered or been able to get into on their own.

Expanding the Reach

With encouraging results at the high school level, IMANI is taking root in Montclair’s elementary public schools, to further progress early on. With parent volunteers leading the charge, McCullough said she is encouraged by this holistic approach.

Mini-IMANI started last year at Nishuane Elementary School, and is branching out to Hillside, Rand, Edgemont and Watchung schools.

“We can’t start too early with these kinds of supports and interventions,” she said. “The sooner the better, as far as our students are concerned.”

IMANI is part of a national consortium that grew from the “Reaching the Top” report, communicating and meeting with similar school districts in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Shaker Heights, Ohio; Oak Park, III.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Amherst, Mass.; Arlington, Va.; White Plains, N.Y.; and Cherry Hill.

“I think the program is wonderful,” Katz said. “It we’re going to really put our ammunition and resources where our mouths are, we have to make students of color aware of what’s out there, and give them the support to get there.

“We have to go the extra yard. IMANI does just that.”