The Achievement Club
by Ibram Rogers, Diverse Education
After seeing her son lose his zeal for school, one mother joined forces with other parents to form an organization that fosters a culture of high achievement for Black males.
When Gabrielle Carpenter became a guidance counselor in Northern Virginia nine years ago, she focused on the academic achievement gap and furiously tried to close it.
At first, she was compelled by tremendous professional interest. It “was hit or miss,” she says of her efforts. “I would find one Black boy who was very smart and making good grades, and he felt isolated because there were three or four others who were not focused on academics. So I thought, ‘maybe if I could create a peer group for young men who are striving for excellence, then that positive peer pressure would transfer over to other boys and they would not feel alone.'”
The urgency to do something was magnified when Carpenter noticed changes in her own son that made her uneasy. “In kindergarten, he was excited to go to school everyday. He was making good grades,” says Carpenter, an eighth-grade guidance counselor at Stone Hill Middle School in Ashburn, Va. “By fifth grade, he was still making good grades. But that excitement was not there.”
Eliminating the gap was now of critical personal concern to her. Carpenter welcomed the parents of nearly every Black male sixthgrader in her county, cohorts from the future high school class of 2012, to her home, and together they formed Club 2012.
That was three years ago. Since then, Club 2012 has become one of the nation’s most innovative and thriving groups working to eradicate the factors preventing Black boys from excelling. Through this club parents have kept their group of boys busy with regular tutoring sessions, a speaker series, field trips and community service activities, and the schools busy with their constant and unyielding demands for teaching brilliance and high expectations.
“Our main goal is academic achievement and eliminating the achievement gap,” Carpenter says. “We all operate on the same issue, which is to see that every African-American male graduate from high school in his designated year on time and equipped to successfully pursue any academic or professional option that he so desires.”
The 15 Black boys in Club 2012, who recently finished their freshman year in high school, have taken more algebra and geometry courses than any other Black freshman cohort in the county’s history. Yet, that distinguished achievement is not the grandest of the group, according to Carpenter. Club 2012 is changing the academic culture of Black boys in the affluent and majority White Loudoun County.
The achievement gap exists in the well-regarded schools in Loudoun County, as it does in suburbs across the nation. In 2006, when Club 2012 was finishing its initial year, 63 percent and 62 percent of Black eighthgraders passed the Virginia math and English exams, respectively, as compared to the 89 percent pass rate for both subjects for White students.
Carpenter says what makes her “feel the best is to see the young men embrace their intelligence and take ownership and say ‘you know what, It is pretty cool to be smart. It’s cool to be cool, but it is also cool to be smart.'”
“Traditionally, African-American males felt they had to choose and present themselves in a certain manner,” she adds. “It either had to be one or the other. But now I feel like they are bridging the gap.”
Now, the group has company.
Black parents in Virginia’s Loudoun County followed the model of Club 2012 and organized Club 2011, Club 2013, and Club 2014 in 2006. Club 2012 and Club 2015 for Black girls were established last year. And the original Club 2012 parents sit on the board of Excellent Options, Inc., a new nonprofit group that oversees all of the clubs.
An Age-old Issue
Excellent Options could become a model for groups of Black parents across the nation. The 20 Club movement may join the likes of prestigious initiatives such as the National Urban League’s Achievement Matters Campaign, which has mobilized parents and prov i d e d them with a framework for c h a n g e , and the f a m e d Harlem Children’s Zone, a program in New York that is receiving W h i t e House attention for its holistic system of education, social service and communitybuilding programs. This past spring, practically all of the third-graders in two of the zone’s academies scored at or above the state level in the statewide math tests. And all of the students in the pre-kindergarten program were found to be school ready for the sixth straight year.
In recent years, the nation has shown increasing interest with these programs and others in closing the achievement gap. But attention has not produced widespread results. The fissure still exists, according to a recently released report from the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The study, called ‘Parsing the Achievement Gap, part II,’ found that over the past six years, there has been little progress in tackling the disparities that keep poor and non-White students from achieving at the same level as their wealthier, White counterparts.
“The tragedy is that we first called attention to this problem in 1965,” says Dr. Edmund Gordon, Teachers College’s Richard March Hoe Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education at Columbia University. “And we have not made a lot of progress since then.”
According to the report, Blacks are still underrepresented among those taking Advanced Placement exams. The situation of Black eighth-graders being almost two times more likely than White eighth-graders to have a teacher leave before the school year ends has not changed. Neither has the fact that more than half of Black eighth-graders watch four hours of television each weekday, compared to a fifth of Whites. The divide in the percentage of White and Hispanic students who are taught by uncertified teachers has widened. And since 2003, teachers in schools where Whites are not in the majority have become more likely to have larger class sizes than teachers in majority White schools.
Other studies have also shown that the achievement gap in wealthy suburbs is a nationwide epidemic, and the crack widens, some reports have found, as the socioeconomic status increases. The suburban academic divide was prominently brought to attention through the pivotal 2003 case study by deceased scholar John U. Ogbu of a suburb outside of Cleveland where Black students were not performing like their White peers. In Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement, Ogbu found racism and hegemony manifested in the attitudes and actions of White school authorities, resistance among Black kids to ‘acting White,’ and poor or inadequate parental coaching, as some of the causes of the gap in the suburbs.
Dr. Donna Y. Ford, the co-creator of the Vanderbilt University Achievement Gap Project, says Ogbu’s findings still hold true. She adds that even though Blacks and Whites may live in the same suburban neighborhoods, there is still usually a divide in wealth and consequently access to resources that plays a crucial, but unheralded, role in widening the achievement gap.
In addition, Ford contends, suburban teachers’ expectations for Black students are often lower and they can not relate to Black students like they can the White students.
“The people who are teaching the White students come from similar backgrounds,” says Ford, the Betts Professor of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt. “The people who are teaching them have higher expectations for them. Administrators and decisionmakers who are creating laws and guidelines come from backgrounds that are similar to them.
“Social, economic and cultural capital – that all makes a difference,” she concludes. “White suburban students have an advantage in the home, and it trickles out to the schools where they have the advantage, and they have the advantage in the community.”
Aside from the phenomenon of White privilege, there are several other reasons these disparities have persisted across time in all communities, Gordon says.
“One of them is the nation has never really taken it seriously,” says Gordon, who is now 88 years old and one of the fathers of the movement to eradicate this gap. “I think we have paid lip service to a concern for it, but we have never really looked at the research and come up with a viable strategy for attacking the problem.”
According to Dr. Michael Nettles, the senior vice president of ETS’s Policy Evaluation and Research Center, that viable strategy would encompass increasing the quality of schools, allocating more resources to out-ofschool learning, and continuing to push -public policy aimed at addressing poverty and inequity. “Also, he says, “one of the things that has to happen in order to reverse this is for each community to do something to address its particular challenges in their areas. When we see that happening, I think we will see a lot more improvement.”
In addition, Black communities need to rethink education and consciously work to make the educational process extend past the school doors, Gordon says.
“One of the things you will notice about high-achievement communities in general is their tendency to try to make a bulk of the child’s experiences educative,” says Gordon, who co-edited a book on this topic five years ago, titled Supplementary Education: The Hidden Curriculum of High Academic Achievement.
“Education doesn’t just occur in schools,” he continues. “It occurs everywhere. So it is important for our people to recognize this, that the dinner table, the bathroom, driving to work, driving to the beach, going to the movies, going to the library – all of these can supplement what happens in school. And for most kids who do well in school, somebody is supplementing what is happening in the schools.”
Through supplementary education, the parents of Club 2012 have built a culture of high achievement for their boys with the series of events, initiatives and assemblies they habitually organize. They have monthly meetings rotating to each family’s home with parents gathering upstairs and the boys usually in the basements. Fathers and sons regularly have rap sessions. The parents bring in guest speakers to talk to the boys about topics like health care, academic achievement, sports, character building, masculinity and what their possibilities are outside of school.
A persistent presence at their boys’ schools, club parents also hold teachers, principals and staff accountable. The club has gone on field trips to the Pentagon and Department of Education and to institutions like Howard University and the University of Virginia.
“The group has helped me stay focused and push myself and push others in school as far as doing homework and, you know, just making sure our grades are up,” says Alden, Carpenter’s 14-year-old son, who over the last three years has redeveloped his fondness for school and is now an aspiring sports marketer. “If somebody didn’t focus or was not doing well in school, we can help them out or push them to do what we are trying to do and that’s graduate with excellence and with options.”
Parents also set up community service activities for their boys. The boys assisted at the voting polls during the primary and general elections. Excellent Options is in the process of organizing a conference next year to share their success secrets, and they plan to ask first lady Michelle Obama to be the keynote speaker.
“It has gone far beyond academics, which is what it started as,” Carpenter says. “It is creating a whole person and a person who is going to be a viable member of society.”
One of the Club 2012 boys, Isaac Cook, won his sophomore class presidential election. His mother, Wanda Cook, says his running and certainly the other two club members who also decided to enter the race had everything to do with the group.
Isaac’s honors English teacher suggested to Isaac that he run for class president. He did not seem too enthusiastic until the teacher shared the suggestion with his parents during one of Club 2012’s monthly “Breakfast Club” gathering of parents, teachers and the boys before a day of school.
“Isaac started to get excited about it and decided to go for it, but under one condition,” Cook says. “That we did not tell his buddies in Club 2012. Well, wouldn’t you know that circumstances happened, and when two of his Club 2012 friends found out, they too decided to run for an office.”
“If it wasn’t for the knowledge that I gained as being an active parent in the club, I may not have thought to personally go to the teachers and raise expectations,” she adds. “And I don’t believe that his teacher would have ever suggested that he run had I not done that.”
A good-natured and productive culture of competition concerning their academic attainments has surfaced between the boys in Club 2012.
“‘What are you taking next year,'” Carpenter says the boys now ask each other. “‘Well I’m taking honors biology. Well I’m taking AP world history. Oh, I’m taking that too. Well, I will get an A. Oh, well I will get an A too.'”
“The conversations that they now have amongst each other are incredible,” says Carpenter, as after nine years of working on the gap she now hears and sees it closing around her. “They have a brotherhood. And we have become a village and it truly is led by parents.”