Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Discrimination is not the reason too few black students are in advanced-placement classes and a disproportionate number of them have been suspended or expelled, Anne Arundel schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith said yesterday.

However, he acknowledged that black and Hispanic students in county schools are significantly behind their white classmates.

“There certainly is a significant gap in achievement in Anne Arundel County, and we have had conversations with the leadership of the black community regarding that gap,” Mr. Smith said in a response to a recent NAACP-led, class-action discrimination complaint against the school system.

He said the school system has already identified goals to remedy the advanced-placement issue. For example, selection is now based upon testing instead of teacher referrals, he said.

“I don’t see the signs that it is racially motivated,” Mr. Smith said. “I think it is more strategy and the way we are structured.”

He thinks some black students become frustrated because they cannot read at their grade level and that — rather than discrimination — helps explains why so many of them are suspended or expelled.

Mr. Smith also said the school board tonight will consider a new code of conduct, developed before the suit was filed, to address the concerns.

He said he was brought to the 75,000-student school district two years ago from Charlotte, N.C., to solve the very issues listed in the complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

“I understand the frustration in the black community,” Mr. Smith said. “I understand the frustration that led to this complaint. We take the complaint very, very seriously. And we look forward to working with the Office of Civil Rights and the complainants.”

Under his direction, he said, the number of black students in Anne Arundel’s middle school Algebra 1 classes has increased from 103 to 220.

He also said the percentage of black students enrolled in the school system’s advanced-placement courses has increased from 7 percent when he took charge to 15 percent today.

Still, Gerald Stansbury, president of the county’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said suspension and expulsion rates are still too high among black students and that racially motivated harassment of blacks is tolerated in the county school system.

As proof, the NAACP circulated a November memo on county letterhead that stated several such examples during the 2002-2003 school year at Annapolis High School.

The document stated that 323 of 739 black students were suspended, while 72 of 736 whites were suspended that year.

Less than 1 percent of blacks qualified to participate in an advanced-placement Algebra 1 course at Annapolis High School in the 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 school years, according to the suit. Seven percent qualified in the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 school years.

“We believe that the Anne Arundel County schools are limiting educational and employment opportunities for our youth,” Mr. Stansbury has said.

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