Blacks-only classes at local college designed to improve student success

By Ted Slowik, Daily Southtown

“While helping my son register for college at Moraine Valley Community College, we noticed that the required course College 101 has two sections limited to African-American students,” one Speak Out participant observed. “He wants to know why there are not two sections limited to Asian-American students? How about Native American students?”

Another reader sent me a copy of course listings. Sure enough, for the one-credit-hour, fall semester course, “College: Changes, Challenges, Choice,” there’s a note that registration for some sections is “limited to African-American students.”

The course meets for eight weeks. Students get together for nearly two hours per session in a discussion/lecture format. All full-time students at the Palos Hills-based school are required to take the course their first year, said Jessica Crotty, the college’s assistant director of communications.

The course “provides an opportunity to assess your purpose for college, assess your study strategies, set college and career goals, examine your values and decision-making skills, and develop an appreciation for diversity,” according to the catalog description.
Because several sections of the course are offered at any given time, for years the college has restricted enrollment in some sections to various demographic groups, Crotty said.

“Sometimes we set aside sections for specific populations, including veterans and older students,” she said.

Benefits of limiting enrollment in certain classes to targeted populations include increased engagement and student participation.

“The focus can be on specific issues they face,” Crotty said. “For example, veterans face a specific set of challenges. Students feel comfortable and are more likely to open up because they’re with other students who are like them.”

Moraine Valley’s enrollment of more than 34,000 credit and non-credit students includes 38 percent who are minorities.

Higher education loves research, and research shows that college-readiness courses like the one at Moraine Valley improve student retention and graduation rates. Evidence supports the practice of restricting enrollment in a class to blacks only, because outcomes show students are more likely to achieve academic success through interventions like peer support.

Still, the complex concept can be difficult to grasp. While peer support may improve success rates among African-American students, the reverse is not necessarily also true. Imagine the outrage if, in this day and age, students registering for classes were confronted with sections designated “whites only.”

Many Moraine Valley students are graduates of the 18 high schools — 10 public and eight private — within the boundaries of the 139-square-mile community college district. Public high schools in the district are Andrew, Argo, Eisenhower, Evergreen Park, Oak Lawn, Reavis, Richards, Sandburg, Shepard and Stagg. 

I support research-based initiatives shown to improve success rates. I’m not personally bothered that some sections of the course at Moraine Valley are available only to black students. However, I’d have to learn more about the course to find out how a class with only African-American students is able “to develop an appreciation for diversity,” as the course description states.

I think the need for racially based peer-support initiatives should be considered in the greater context of education equality.

In a demographically perfect world, education opportunities at all public schools would be equal. Imagine if public school funding and enrollments precisely represented the statistical mix of Americans as identified by income, race, ethnicity and other factors.

The reality is, our system of public education isn’t perfectly balanced. South suburban communities feature a wide variety of median incomes, which translate to broad differences in median home values, which results in disparity in the amount of resources available to local public schools.

There are statistical correlations between median incomes and the racial makeup of communities. In my observation, segregation persists. It may not be institutionalized, but it exists.

“Much of the discussion about college readiness for African-American students has centered on the deficiencies of students, families and communities. Lack of academic achievement for African-American students is often attributed to environmental and cultural differences that impact school performance,” Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt Bryant wrote in the 2015 study, “College Preparation for African American Students: Gaps in the High School Educational Experience.” The study was published by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).

Based on my experience covering public education, I understand why policymakers devote resources to programs that address cultural, social, family and environmental issues that affect student success.

To put it more simply, community colleges and other institutions of higher education have to serve a range of students with varying degrees of preparedness. I’ve known community colleges to work with public high schools to try to better prepare students for college before they graduate high school.

Similarly, I’ve known high schools to work with public elementary and middle schools to try to address academic achievement issues. The trend in education is to intervene as early as possible. That’s why there’s a push to better fund preschool and other early childhood education programs.

Invariably, there are still gaps in achievement. Individuals and groups of students from some areas simply aren’t as well prepared for college as others. It’s generally acknowledged there’s a relation between variations in academic achievement and the disparity in public education funding.

I have no problem with a college offering support to students to help them achieve academic success. Peer support is among the tools available in that effort, which explains why some sections of an introductory course at Moraine Valley Community College are restricted to African-American students.

Twitter @tedslowik

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