Community Comment:

Achievement gap held open by local


Closing the scholastic achievement gap between black and white students throughout the Evansville school system has recently become a sore subject among members of the Baptist Ministers & Deacons Alliance and others who closely monitor the activities of the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corp. administration.

While Superintendent Bart McCandless has singled out minority students at Bosse High School as the initial target in "eating the elephant, one bite at a time" in terms of improving scholastic performance, the black ministers were quick to point out that the problem extends beyond the artificial boundaries of the Bosse district lines. Some of them also reminded McCandless that several of their churches had initiated after-school mentoring programs and had others in place designed to address the problem.

As one might expect, it is easy for such a discussion to degenerate into a heated exchange of hyperbole and finger-pointing. But for those concerned about the greater welfare, progress and civic health of this community, it is a conversation that should be taken very seriously.

At the same time, this discussion should also consider some rather unpleasant truths that many of us refuse to consider whenever we think about the future of this community. The sad truth is that the deplorable scholastic performance of ethnic minority students is a function of poverty and parents failing to share the responsibilities of a child's education. But they describe a small subset of an even more enormous achievement gap that, respectively, afflicts many local residents of different social, ethnic and economic backgrounds throughout this community.

Consider for a moment the complexion of the local power establishment. While there are black members of the local elected School Board and the City and County councils, how many black men and women sit on the boards of directors of major local banks, hospitals, utilities, insurance companies, media outlets and local universities? While there are a handful of prominent black individuals who, from time to time, are recognized for one thing or another, they still do not seem to have a seat at the table among many of the prominent civic and cultural boards and committees which frequently make major decisions regarding the future of this community.

Much of this is a function of economics and personal wealth, but there is more to it than that. How many black millionaires live in Evansville? How many successful black businessmen and women can boast of dozens if not hundreds of employees working in their companies? How about the board of the local Chamber of Commerce, membership in country clubs or some of the local organizations dedicated to the community's cultural life? A similar thought occurred last year when the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra performed George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." Why wasn't Gina Moore, with all her enormous talent, cast in a lead singing part rather than a silent walk-on part with a minor notice in the program?

Truth be told, there is something much larger at work here that afflicts not only blacks, but people of all races throughout this community.

That is a tendency toward orthodoxy (definition: conformity to generally approved beliefs, attitudes or modes of conduct) and a steadfast resistance to social and political change which is imposed upon this city by the people who control its local culture. There are many around here - black and white - who are victims of this prevailing tendency. Difficult as it may be to admit, some of these arbiters of the status quo are of lily-white inherited wealth. They inconspicuously enjoy the enormous fortunes acquired by their parents and grandparents. Others are self-made millionaires who have become power brokers in their own right. Some support both political parties and influence investment decisions made by the major corporations and financial institutions. Their names rarely appear in the newspapers but are well-known among their peers.

Many ignore or scoff at the legitimate complaints of environmental activists about the health threats of polluted air and water. Their pervasive orthodoxy - either directly or indirectly - keeps much of the potential creative talent of this community under a firm heel, stifling creativity, narrowing the public debate and perpetuating a culture of mediocrity.

Many care little about providing real, economic upward mobility for the residents of this community and simply do not see the polarization of the class structure that is evolving.

While Indiana residents continue to earn 91 cents, compared with the average $1 earned by workers throughout the rest of the United States (and the earnings for workers in the Evansville area are even lower than that), this entire discussion asks an important question: Suppose we close the achievement gap n what then? Where will the employment opportunities be for highly educated young minority graduates? Will Evansville be ready and willing to offer them a prosperous and fulfilling future? These are questions way beyond the scope of McCandless or the alliance to address. Butif we are serious about closing the scholastic achievement gap, they are essential to any serious conversation about the future vitality of this region.


David Coker is a community activist and a free-lance writer.