Tradition of Excellence

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Raising the bar for blacks while celebrating academic success

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by Amber Parcher

Once a year, from third grade to her high school graduation, Ashley Baynton marched across a stage to celebrate her academic achievements.

Baynton, a graduate of Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Rockville and a sophomore broadcast journalism major at Hampton University, said the recognition from the African American Festival of Academic Excellence motivated her to do well in school.

‘‘It’s not just like your teacher sees you and gives you a pat on the back,” she said. ‘‘For black students, it’s the first time somebody highlights their achievements.”

The AAFAE, a Silver Spring-based nonprofit founded by black education advocate and former school board member Roscoe Nix in 1989, honors African-American students in grades 3 to 12 in Montgomery County who achieve at least a 3.0 grade-point average.

The annual dinner has expanded from celebrating a few hundred students to an expected 3,000 to 4,000 in the upcoming June 7 ceremony at Cole Field House at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Oliver Lancaster, the vice president of AAFAE, attributes the growth to AAFAE’s ability to set the academic bar higher for African-American students.

Lancaster said African-Americans are often given low expectations and sent the message they are not capable of performing well.

‘‘They used to say that doing well meant you were acting white, and so [African-Americans] steered away from it,” he said. ‘‘So they would do poorly.

‘‘But we’ve tried to reverse that by demonstrating to them that the community wants them to do well.”

Judy Docca, a former Montgomery County principal and current Board of Education member who has been active with the NAACP, said the festival combats prevalent beliefs that African-American students don’t belong in higher level classes.

‘‘There are still people in the community who say they’re watering down the courses because they don’t belong there,” she said of African-American students. ‘‘I’ve heard it myself.”

Docca said the festival, which is attended by County Council members, has clout in the community.

‘‘It’s an important festival,” she said. ‘‘It’s not something that’s on the back burner. Everybody pays attention to it.”

Richard Emmeni, an immigrant from Cameroon whose four sons have received the award every year while at Col. Zadok Magruder High School, said AAFAE is a good reward system.

‘‘I think that it’s really exciting to see it’s worth the while being among the best,” he said.

In 19 years, nearly 39,000 students have received an AAFAE certificate. Alumni include the former senior editor for Fortune magazine, John Fort, and jazz musician Marcus Johnson.

To put on the event, AAFAE seeks support from the University of Maryland and Montgomery College, which provide grants and a full scholarship each year.

But in a tight budget year, AAFAE has struggled to maintain funding. This year, it received half of what it usually gets from schools and for the first time did not receive its usual county grant, Lancaster said.

‘‘We struggle for money,” he said. ‘‘We sort of beg and borrow as much as we can to make it work.”

The ceremony costs about $70,000, Lancaster said, much of which goes to rent Cole Field House — one of the few indoor venues in the area large enough to hold the ceremony.

Lancaster said the program is run by a handful of volunteers. AAFAE used to hold educational seminars for parents and students, but they were canceled in recent years due to low attendance.

But he said the program will find a way to work because it has changed the way African-American students view their accomplishments.

‘‘People are now expecting they have acknowledgment for doing well,” Lancaster said.


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