LIMA — LaShonda Gurley’s parents moved to Lima during the second “Great Migration,” a period when more than 5 million blacks moved from the South to the North, West and Midwest. The couple wished for a better life than they had in the South, where racial segregation continued in all aspects of life, including the school system.
“They were marginalized in regards to education,” Gurley said. “Based on their experience, they wanted my sibling and I to make sure that we were afforded the opportunities they were not.”
Born and raised in Lima, Gurley attended Lima schools and graduated from Lima Senior High School. She went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in communication, a master’s degree in education and is currently pursing a doctorate degree. She is also the director of multicultural development at Ohio Northern University.
“Education was always promoted in our household, so it wasn’t a matter of if I was going to college, it was a matter of what I’m going to major in and where I’m going to go,” she said.
Gurley said she was fortunate to have parents who encouraged her academic pursuits and to be put in a situation where going to college was more an inevitability than a pipe dream.
For many black students in Lima schools, however, lack of parental involvement, poverty and other socioeconomic factors hinder their ability to even graduate from high school. For those students, college can seem even more out of reach.
While poverty is perhaps the largest barrier for black students to overcome, school administrators say it is just one socioeconomic factor keeping some blacks from graduating and pursuing a college degree.
Bryan Miller is the director of a Lima schools’ program called Closing the Achievement Gap, an initiative originally designed for black males at risk of not graduating high school. Since its inception in 2007, the program has expanded to help any at-risk student, regardless of race or gender.
Miller is part of a six-person team working with these students every school day, addressing any issues they might have at home or school that could be preventing them from succeeding academically.
While Miller admits dropout rates continue to be a problem at Lima schools, he said the CTAG program has helped dozens of black, at-risk students obtain their diplomas. He said that when the program started, only 47 to 48 percent of black males were graduating. Since implementing CTAG, Miller said that number has averaged out to 78 percent in the eight years since the program took effect.
“Every year, our graduation rates improve because of CTAG,” he said.
Miller believes the most effective part of the program is the ability to get to know students on a more personal level.
“Honestly, what we’re doing is addressing interpersonal skills, personal issues, social issues,” Miller said. “We address those emotional needs that haven’t been addressed before.”
Miller believes having a support system at school, especially when a student is experiencing trauma at home, can make all the difference in whether or not they graduate.
“Even the simplest things we take for granted, like why it’s important to want to learn, we have to address with some of these kids,” he said.
Beyond the report card
Data from the 2014-15 school year for Lima schools shows four-year graduation rates fell to 65 percent for all students, and five-year graduation rates went from 81 percent in 2013-14 to 75 percent in 2014-15. Both scores again earned the district an “F” grade.
The percentage of blacks graduating from Lima schools in 2014-15 has not been released by the Ohio Department of Education. In 2013-14, the black graduation rate was 69 percent.
Administrators argue these type of statistics do not reflect the strides they’ve made to ensure more students obtain their diplomas.
“When I looked at scores on grade cards from 2002 to now, there were significant gains in every area, but it doesn’t matter because they (Ohio Department of Education) change the rules all the time,” said Jill Ackerman, superintendent of Lima City Schools. “Every time we make the mark, the bar is raised. It’s like you’re a gerbil running around in a circle.”
To further address graduation rates, Lima schools implemented an early warning program this year. Ackerman said this system can identify students who are at risk of dropping out of school as early as third grade.
“We now have a system in place where we can have early interventions for at-risk students, and we can follow them through high school,” she said. “It doesn’t help the immediate issue, but certainly it can help in the future.”
Many at-risk students lack parental guidance when it comes to academics. With little to no involvement from parents, educators say this can lead students to becoming apathetic to the importance of education and the belief they cannot attain success in their professional lives.
Tyson Goings, director of multicultural affairs at Bluffton University and former counselor at Lima schools, said a lack of parental involvement while he was in school was something he experienced firsthand.
Growing up, Goings said academics were not important to his father, and he was essentially on his own when it came to making good grades. If it wasn’t for the support of his teachers, coaches and peers, he said he wasn’t sure if he would have made it to college.
“I was one of those students who didn’t qualify for most universities at first, but I had people go to bat for me in order to get me here,” Goings said. “Now look at me. I broke the cycle.”
Lima Senior student Jaytoria McWay said she’s known several black students whose parents were not involved in their children’s academics. Though McWay said her parents are always pushing her to get good grades, one of her classmates did not have the same guidance from her parents.
“They didn’t really care what she did, so she just gave up, got pregnant and dropped out,” McWay said. “School is really hard, and if your parents aren’t there to guide you, you can basically do whatever you want.”
Lack of parental involvement may not stem solely from apathy, however. Gurley argues some parents aren’t as involved in their children’s academics because they are busy trying to provide for their family.
“If you have a family that is economically challenged, you might have a parent working two or three jobs just to put food on the table,” Gurley said. “That parent may not show up to that parent-teacher conference, not because they don’t care but because they don’t want to risk calling off and losing their job.”
Keeping students in school
Along with CTAG, Lima schools offers an alternative program for students who are struggling academically.
According to school officials, the program provides smaller class sizes that allow more personalized instruction. Each student has an individual plan they helped create to get them to graduation. Based on individual needs, students are able to take classes online or in the evenings.
Students recommended for expulsion are also placed in the alternative program in most cases.
“We don’t believe kicking kids out is going to make them successful,” said Ackerman. “You have to get to the root of why they’re reacting, rather than kicking them out.”
Ackerman said many former dropouts end up graduating through the alternative program, the state’s report card does not reflect this.
“Even if we have a kid who wants to get a GED, that’s still a dropout for us even if they successfully get their GED,” Ackerman said. “It’s another thing we do that doesn’t reflect on the state report card.”
For black students who are able to overcome socioeconomic barriers and neglect, attending college after they graduate high school may still seem out of reach.
Many are first-generation college students whose families are unfamiliar with the college application process. Goings said he’s worked with several of these students, helping them fill out financial aid forms and register for classes.
“I was a first-generation college student, so I know firsthand how challenging it can be,” Goings said. “That’s why I take them step by step through the process to make sure they’re doing everything they’re supposed to.”
For people growing up in poverty, finances can be a strong deterrent in their ability to attend college.
Goings said there are a substantial amount of scholarships available for minorities with the desire to attend college. He said many of these scholarships go untouched because students don’t know where to look.
As multicultural affairs directors, Goings and Gurley said they try to educate students and their families about available scholarships and other ways to save money on the high cost of tuition.
“If you have the desire to go, there are plenty of funding opportunities out there,” Gurley said. “We can get you on a college campus.”
Reach John Bush at 567-242-0456 or on Twitter @bush_lima
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