Student-driven, union-supported initiative takes on Opportunity Gap in one of America’s wealthiest counties

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By David Sheridan, photos courtesy MinorityScholars.org.

It all started 11 years ago when Morehouse College offered a full scholarship to one African-American male student who met the minimum requirement of a 3.0 GPA at Walter Johnson High, one of the most prestigious public schools in Montgomery County, Maryland.

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Not a single African-American male student met the minimum requirement.

Educators already knew underachievement by some students of color was a problem in their increasingly diverse county, but the Morehouse offer was the tipping point. What happened next was brilliant. Many school districts might have hired a consultant to analyze the issue or set up a blue ribbon committee at the district office. Instead, Walter Johnson social studies teacher Michael Williams and a few of his colleagues took direct action by going straight to the source.

Michael Williams
Michael Williams

They asked students of color what they thought should be done to close the achievement gap. Out of these meetings emerged the Minority Scholars Program (MSP). It’s not a club, but rather a movement led by minority students who help their peers thrive academically.

Fast forward to 2016. The percentage of African-American and Latino students in honors and AP classes at Walter Johnson has increased 35 percent. And MSP is now in 15 high schools across the county.

The Minority Scholars not only tutor and mentor their peers, they advocate for their fellow students by hitting the books and the street. MSP played a key role in organizing a “close the achievement gap” march in which hundreds of students took part. They’ve testified in front of the school board about how the achievement gap affects them directly. And this year, they led a session on the impact of institutional racism at NEA’s annual Representative Assembly.

Each MSP chapter has an educator coordinator who is charged with organizing and guiding students and ensuring that they have the opportunities to build a program that will create positive change within the building. The coordinator also recruits other educators so that the shift in culture occurs not only among students, but adults as well.

For years, the Minority Scholars Program scraped by on the “dime and time” of a few volunteer educators, notes Michael Williams, a co-founder and coordinator. Now, however, the Montgomery County Education Association, with help from NEA, is providing the Minority Scholars Program with substantial financial and logistical support. The best of the best, says Williams, is the summer internship program that trains students in community organizing, giving students the opportunity to create and implement their own action plans for affecting broader change in public schools.

march_1_orig“We are the voice for students who have no voice,” says Minority Scholar Gabriella Sanjur. “We emphasize expectations, and urge every educator when they look at students of color to see, not a statistic, but rather a student who can excel,” adds Minority Scholar Marianna Mora.

She’s talking about students like Kofi Owusu-Koranteng, who encountered deep skepticism when he told his high school counselor he wanted to take IB courses. Now, as a Minority Scholar, Kofi counsels other students not to be deterred.

Despite the racial schisms so glaringly apparent in our society, the Scholars are not pessimistic about the future, but rather, determined optimists. “If we keep pushing, I believe the day will come when white Americans see diversity as a great asset for our country,” says Minority Scholar Maria Salmeron, who describes herself as “a proud Afro-Latina.”

The success of the Minority Scholars Program is a lesson for educators in the power of activism to affect extraordinary change, notes co-founder Michael Williams, who says he is proud of his union. “This truly is social justice unionism in action. I believe the Minority Scholar Program will work in other school districts—and I am ready to go wherever I’m invited to tell people about it.”

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