Essay: Reporter Ariel Nash on mission to learn more about her black culture after reporting story about achievement gap

As someone who worked hard in class, showed all adults in the building respect, and sang opera with confidence, I sometimes felt like an outsider. A lot of the black students in my school saw me as “acting white.”

When I first learned that my principal was going to break up students by race to discuss the upcoming statewide math test last spring, I didn’t have an immediate reaction. Was it a good thing? Was it a bad thing? Was it something that I had to support because Mr. Favor was working hard to put the school back on track?

I decided that it was a bad thing. Why would he take a step backward and segregate the student body again? We needed to move forward and improve test scores, period. Help the students who needed help. Race had nothing to do with it.

In my sociology class, our teacher suggested that Mr. Favor broke up the student body because of the achievement gap. We students argued that it couldn’t have been that bad.

The teacher went over to the computer and put up MCA-II math and reading scores broken up by race. The room went silent. In 2008, among Cooper students who took the statewide math test, 21 percent of Asian, 20 percent of Hispanic and 43 percent of white students scored high enough to be considered proficient. For black students, only 4 percent did that well.

After staring at the scores and waiting for the shock to wear off, my mind did a complete 180. I no longer felt that breaking the student body up by race was a bad thing. If I, as a senior, felt embarrassed for my peers to see that my race was at the bottom of the chart, imagine how the younger students would take it.

A few days after that, I told my editors at ThreeSixty Journalism what was happening at my school. They told me it sounded like a story. A few days later, I interviewed Mr. Favor on why he broke up the students by race. He helped me to better understand why.

During the interview I started a discussion about black culture, which I saw mostly as rap and hip-hop culture. Mr. Favor was upset that I didn’t know our rich, colorful history of music, education, and pride. Since I hadn’t learned this in school, black culture was something that I would have to search for on my own, he said.

At Mr. Favor’s meeting about the test with black students, I sat next to my sister and listened to what he had to say to the students. I was a little surprised that most of the students took it seriously. A lot seemed embarrassed that the scores were so low.

The scores improved a lot on last spring’s math test, when more than 12 percent of Cooper’s black students scored “proficient.” What I initially thought was a step backward for our school and culture actually turned out to be a step forward.

In working on this story for four months, I learned a lot about the achievement gap and my own culture. As someone who worked hard in class, showed all adults in the building respect, and sang opera with confidence, I sometimes felt like an outsider. A lot of the black students in my school saw me as “acting white.” Now I know that I’m not the only black youth trying to find my way when most of my peers seem to embrace rap and hip hop as the true black culture. I know that black culture is much more.

I want to write a book on my search for black culture in hopes that it will help a lot of confused youth like me. Seeing black culture for what it really is can give us the desire to learn all we can.

I have a lot of research to do. People keep telling me books to read: “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, “Cooking With Grease” by Donna Brazille, and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. Right now I’m working through “Our Kind of People” by Lawrence Otis Graham. I have many other books that I need to read.

This will be a long journey, but it will worth it. I want black youth not only to have the desire to learn, but to take that desire and turn it into closing the achievement gap.

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