Montgomery Co. students rally minority scholars to close achievement gap

Adults telling kids to get good grades sounds like nagging. But cool kids telling their peers to excel creates a movement of flourishing students.

SILVER SPRING, Md. — The thump of a go-go beat filled the auditorium at Northwood High School on Saturday morning, as a roll call of schools was read from the stage.

“Norrrrthwoooooood! James Hubert Blake are you in the house? Come on Clarksburg, make some noise!!” More than 400 students from across Montgomery County — and from as far away as Kent County — let out deafening cheers in response.

The occasion was a retreat held by the Montgomery County Public Schools’ Minority Scholars Program, aimed at closing the achievement gap.

Michael Williams, the Social Studies Resource teacher at Kennedy High School, has been working with students in the program for 11 years. Though Montgomery County continues to see a gap between the achievement level of African American and Latino students and their peers, Williams sees progress in the growth of minority students moving into Honors and Advanced Placement classes.

Williams said the strength of the program is its emphasis on developing students as leaders and employing a positive form of peer pressure.

“Adults aren’t cool,” Williams said, smiling. But he said when you have kids who are cool telling others that they can be cool and get good grades, then you have a movement that generates more kids to push themselves to excel.

Shane Ramsey, 17, a senior at James Hubert Blake High School, is seen as a role model within the Minority Scholars Program. A high-achieving African American student with an easy smile and an outgoing personality, Ramsey said he wasn’t always focused on school.

“I’m not going to lie,” he said, explaining that he didn’t jump into honors programs at first. It was his middle school principal whose prodding propelled him to excel.

“I’ll never forget my principal at Faquar Middle School, Miss Morris. She was someone who always pushed me.”

He recalls being reluctant, and said she told him he’d be taking an honors course, but not only that — he’d excel. And he has, landing in honors courses and flourishing.

Ramsey said it’s not only the support from teachers, but from his fellow honors students, that has been important.

“People really cared about me, and the students were so helpful to me,” he said.

Just why an achievement gap exists is the subject of much research and debate across the country.

Montgomery County School Board President Michael Durso said it’s taken years for school systems to come to grips with the lagging scores among minority students: “Have we been, in the past, reluctant to admit that we weren’t reaching all of our kids? There’s a lot of assumptions out there that maybe need to be rethought.”

Nico Ballon, a Walter Johnson High School graduate who now attends American University, is a former participant in the Minority Scholars Program. He gave a rousing speech at the Saturday event, with a tribute to the program that made such a big impact in his life.

Referring to the program by its acronym, Ballon said, “MSP, I’ll forever work hard to realize my full potential. MSP, you’ve given me a stage to stand on, so now I stand for you!”

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