SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio — Ask anyone in Northeast Ohio and they’ll tell you: If you’re looking for diversity, look no further than Shaker Heights. But even a city that spent decades achieving diversity still has its challenges.
That’s where teachers like Brittany Webb come in. Every Tuesday after school she’s pushing students beyond expectations, giving 5th-grade boys, 6th-grade material.
They’re all part of the Rising Stars Enrichment Program designed to help young black students stay ahead of the game.
Webb decided to give them a boost because she recognized a problem in Shaker’s advanced courses, one that students notice too.
The Achievement Gap
“I see white people who I don’t think are ready…but then I go to my honors classes and see an African-American. I’m like, ‘why is he not in my advanced placement class?’ like, he is leaps and bounds ahead of these other students,” Shaker Heights High School senior Eli Meinhard said.
Eli is also a core leader for the Student Group on Race Relations and well-attuned to the ways black and white Americans are kept separate by systems and institutions.
Eli thinks long-standing implicit bias plays a role in the lack of diversity he sees in his AP courses.
Superintendent Dr. David Glasner told News 5 there are structural practices at play starting at an early age that keep kids separate.
It’s a problem happening across the country, and one Shaker is trying to address.
As part of that effort it hired Erica Merritt as an Equity Partner.
“If I’m a black student sitting in a core class and I’m looking around and I know that there are white students in this school but everybody who’s in here with me is black, what is that? What is that message?” she told News 5.
Merritt has spent months observing and meeting with teachers to try and help the district close the achievement gap.
She’s talking to students, too.
“I want to hear about their experiences,” she said, “I want to hear what they want the adults to know.”
By the Numbers
The district said it has roughly the same number of black students and white students. But white students are over represented, vastly outnumbering all minority groups in AP classrooms.
“It makes me hold my head up a little bit higher and have more pride,” said 10th grader Ayande Joseph. He told us he’s the only black student in his advanced pre-calculus class and one of three black students in AP Biology.
“It’s pretty desolate,” he said, “so I have to learn to have my self confidence and be my own support.”
Ayande has been in advanced classes since the 6th grade, and now helps out Webb as a tutor for her Rising Stars program.
He tries to stay optimistic about the lack of faces he sees that are like his.
“It can get mentally draining sometimes but it’s good because it helps build character, helps you be more resilient and strong,” he said.
For a bright, young black male like Ayande, failure isn’t an option: “Right now it’s just expected of me,” he said. “I mean I’ve been through this for the last five years or so ever since 6th grade coming to this advanced class so it’s just what I do now.”
Making a Difference
Webb understands that pressure. She’s the mother of three black sons, ages 15, 10 and 9.
“It’s a special place in my heart. This population is so near and dear to me I have to – I want to do – I’m compelled to do something,” she said.
Talking to Webb about her work, it’s hard not to feel inspired.
“Society is looking at these men and these boys and are threatened by them," she said, "but I see a child.”
And she also sees opportunity: “If I could do my part in excelling these kids and just showing the world how amazing they are I really feel like…it gives others an opportunity to see African American males in a different light.”
Proof of Performance
Webb’s inaugural class of Rising Stars from the 2016-2017 school year are all in advanced math classes at Shaker Middle School this year.
Her program is such a success, the middle school is starting its own chapter.
And for students like Ayande, who knows the work he’s doing now as a Rising Stars tutor will mean a more diverse AP classroom in the future?
Well, they’re learning a lot more than math.
“It makes me feel like I’m helping to change the world,” he said.
This story is part of A Better Land, an ongoing series that investigates Northeast Ohio's deep-seated systemic problems. Additionally, it puts a spotlight on the community heroes fighting for positive change in Cleveland and throughout the region. If you have an idea for A Better Land story, tell us here.