By Jennifer Wohlleb
More than three years ago when administrators were walking through Union County’s schools they noticed something wasn’t quite right with the relationship between the schools and its African-American students. This was backed up by data that showed an achievement gap.
“Students were pretty much just in class, sometimes not even participating, possibly being looked over,” said Uniontown Elementary School Principal Tamala Howard. “We just got this sense that they felt like nobody cared so we wanted to do something to motivate and give them that self esteem and empowerment that they can do whatever they put their minds to, that they are bright young adults, too.”
PHOTO: Officers of Union County High Schools’ Operation Hope Club meet to plan fundraisers to fund trips to visit area colleges. Starting left and going around the table clockwise are Treavon Triplett, Ebony Wilhoite, Kaprice Anglin, teacher and club advisor Sharon Ali and Chase Baker. Photo by Malinda Beauchamp/Union County Schools
Operation Hope was born after that, a program that has brought together students, educators, parents and community members with stunning results. In three years, the graduation rate among African-American students has increased 17.7 percent, up to 87.3 percent. Districtwide, African-American students have made a 21 percent gain in those scoring at a proficient and distinguished level in reading and a 22 percent gain in math. The ACT composite score of juniors this year was 16.5.
“It’s still not where we want it to be, but in 2008 it was 13,” said Superintendent Patricia Sheffer.
The main thrust of Operation Hope is information.
“We sat them (African-American students) down and explained, ‘Here’s the difference (in scores) in white, black, Asian,’ and we listed all of them and showed them, and asked, ‘What’s the difference in you?’” Sheffer said. “And there’s not any. And they had to own it. When they saw the numbers, they were like, ‘Oh my, we can do better than that.’”
Howard said this information, which also emphasizes graduating and moving on to postsecondary education, lit a fire under the students.
“When we implemented Operation Hope, our students began to realize that public education was an equalizer for them, and they now know that the resources are here, but it’s up to them to take all of those resources to utilize them to reach their full potential,” Sheffer said. “I think the point is, they are more exposed to and are more aware of what’s out there. Some of the things that Operation Hope did was actually organize times to go visit colleges and meet people from outside of Union County.”
Howard, who volunteered to lead the program, said Operation Hope organizers held an initial meeting with parents and discussed scores and the achievement gaps between African Americans and other groups of students. There are now student and parent meetings every other month. Community members and churches have also gotten involved, offering students incentives for reaching certain goals.
“We had that first meeting and it was really successful and from there we started soliciting volunteers to come in and we started taking the kids to colleges to get them interested and say, ‘OK, this is something that I can do, somewhere I can be,’” she said.
The college trips – to Murray State and Western Kentucky universities and the University of Kentucky in the first year – have been so successful that students are now planning the trips themselves through the Operation Hope club they formed last year at the high school.
“They’ve really taken on ownership,” Howard said. “I have a daughter out there and she asked me, ‘Momma, how did you arrange the college trip because we want to go ahead and get that UK trip arranged,’ and we had not even had our first parent meeting yet.”
Union County High School teacher Sharon Ali, who is faculty advisor to the club, said students aren’t the only ones who have changed.
“All of the teachers here are embracing what we’re trying to do,” she said. “You can see it’s just a remarkable difference. Instead of treating students differently, everybody is held to the same standards, and they’re trying to raise the bar, and they are expecting that of all students. And what the members of our organization hope to do is meet that challenge and exceed it. They know what they are capable of doing; they just needed people to believe in that.”
School board Chairwoman Jennifer Buckman said the board wanted to close the achievement gap, but said the changes in the district reach beyond that goal.
“There’s more camaraderie and togetherness, a feeling and sense of pride,” she said.
The club has embraced diversity, with both black and white members, and this year elected a white president.
“I tell you what made a big difference was when we integrated the organization last year – that was a student decision – and they all collaborated on a script and producing it for Black History Month,” Ali said. “It’s about cultural awareness, it’s about making students aware of the contributions African Americans and other minorities make to our society, and that helps instill pride. They just don’t want to feel disenfranchised and I think we’re breaking barriers on that.”
Operation Hope President Chase Baker said the club, which has at least 40 members, is already planning fundraisers for college trips and is ready to do big things this year, including a goal of getting more African-American students to take the ACT more seriously. “It makes me want to see people excel,” he said of the group.
Ali said African-American students also are getting more involved in other areas of the school, pursuing leadership roles in different clubs, on the yearbook staff, prom committee and student council. “I think we’ve always had some but I think the numbers are increasing,” she said.
Sheffer said the district had to take the blinders off, especially for the students, to make them see there is a world beyond the county’s edge.
“A lot of times when you are from this community, you have what we call Union County goggles on, and you think of just what you’ve seen,” she said. “And honestly, our African-American students and their parents did the same thing. Their parents had their goggles on and they didn’t realize what else was out there ... I think that’s what our teachers did, too. They were kind of pigeonholing everybody and thinking, ‘Well, this is all we’re ever going to do.’ You can’t do that because you’re limiting the students.”