This is the first post in a blog series written by Brooke Giles, freshman at the University of Maryland, giving her perspective on current education news and events.

The achievement gap is one topic that is usually on the forefront in education. It has good reason; minorities that underperform are statistically set up to fail. NPR reports 83% of black students were considered to be below proficient by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2013. As a result, they are less likely to attend college, and more likely to be incarcerated. There have been many programs implemented into schooling systems to change that statistic, and improve the academic path that black students take. While many opponents believe that there is nothing that schools can do to fix a problem that starts at home, I believe that not every case of underachieving students is the same. President Obama has recently expanded his program, My Brothers Keeper, to more schools and is partnering with the NBA to recruit 25,000 new mentors. The program aims to get students of color in school at an early age, and make sure they stay on track, by providing mentor programs at the high school level.

As a minority student, I can honestly say that besides bringing our country together and leveling playing field, the education gap needs to be fixed for the sake of development of minority students among their peers.

I always wonder about the other 17% of black students: the kids who are proficient and are succeeding in class rooms. What sets them apart? And how can they help their peers? I find it interesting that researching the statistics for those students is significantly harder.

Minority students that share the same class environments as their counterparts are often put in a unique social situation. They’re able to interact with people who may not be in their social group; they are building relationships with people they might’ve never talked to. However, students that have always been in classes where they are the minorities are likely to become separated socially from their racial peers, because they are underrepresented in the classroom. So while they may be advancing academically, they are still at risk for struggling socially.

My high school was a melting pot of different cultures, and as a result, we had a minority achievement counselor to make sure every student was getting the help they needed. The biggest initiatives were two groups for minority boys and girls. The boys’ Cohort program is comprised of Black and Latino students in grades 9-12, with at least a 3.0 grade point average. United Minority Girls was created for girls with similar grades, but unlike the Cohort, this program is only offered during junior and senior year. One of the main reasons for this is that statistically, minorities that are excelling in school are female, and minority girls have different needs than the boys.

These groups meet weekly during lunch over pizza, and tackled many subjects like what was going on in the classroom, or in personal lives. UMG consistently talked about college, and the application process. UMG and Cohort students are also taken on several college visits throughout their time in the program. Not only do they get to visit city schools like Virginia Commonwealth, but they also visit small private schools like the University of Richmond. It doesn’t stop there though; the group also helps students find a way to finance their education, by bringing scholarship information that they qualify for to meetings. Groups like these combat not only the academic side of the achievement gap, but they also bridge the social side. This builds strong bonds, some that might not happen without the group. It builds a network of friends that look like you, who are going to be in your classes. Everyone has different home lives, some are middle class, some are lower income, but everyone has the same goal to continue their education.

A perk of the group is that our gifted specialist is the other coordinator. This means that all of the minority students get to use her resources, whether identified as gifted or not.

The programs’ success is evident: Cohort and UMG members have gone on to several competitive universities, and have received numerous scholarship awards. In 1999, at Cohort’s inception, only 15 minority males were in AP courses at my school. Since then, the number has jumped massively. The programs are nationally lauded for how they’ve changed the dynamic of our school environment. Of the top six students in my senior class, four were members of Cohort and UMG.

At the end of it all, parents and students gather around one last time, and each member reflects on their time together, which usually involves some tears. Senior members of each group are also invited to the first meeting of the junior class, where they offer advice and share their stories.

Being a member of this program has made a huge difference in my life. My friends and I, the ones who take AP Calculus and those who are still mastering the mystery that is Pre-Calc, can all come together here. It was where I could lend a helping hand to a friend struggling in AP Spanish, or where we could rant about the trials and tribulations of FASA. In fact, without UMG, I wouldn’t even be writing this blog post. Being a member of this program gave me and other members the opportunity to intern here at Hobsons. (Read Wendy's blog post on her Naviance experience here.)

I think that bridging the gap will be more effective when it combines students from different backgrounds. It lets them know they aren’t alone, and it helps them make new friends that they might not have made. Mentoring is great, but instead of having an adult who may have different experiences, this method lets students get inspired by people who really are just like them. Minority students come in all different shapes and sizes, and require different needs, and when those different backgrounds come together, there are great results.


Visit the Resource Center