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Chipping away at disparity 13 black students are experiencing Hilbert in an effort to close educational gap

College is still two years away for Davion Currie. But after a week on the Hilbert College campus, he likes what he sees.

"Now that I've been here, it's not a mystery," said Currie, 16, who attends East High School. "I know about what goes down in college."

Black high school students are getting a taste of college life for three weeks this summer at the small liberal arts college in Hamburg.

For Hilbert, it's an opportunity to attract potential students and add more diversity to the largely white campus.

It's also one school's effort to chip away at the disparity in educational attainment across the nation.

Nearly 31 percent of whites 25 and older had at least a bachelor's degree in 2006, compared with 18 percent of blacks and 12 percent of Hispanics, according to estimates from the Census Bureau.

In the Buffalo Niagara region, 26 percent of whites older than 25 have at least a bachelor's degree, compared with just 13 percent of blacks.

Why the gap?

"To some extent it's a pipeline issue," said Bryan Cook, associate director at the Center for Policy Analysis at the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C. "There's a big disparity in minorities graduating high school, so obviously your pool of candidates to enroll in college is going to be disproportionate."

Also, income among minorities, as a whole, tends to be lower and poverty higher, which limits opportunities for college, Cook said.

Many minority students don't have family members who attended college and who can help them navigate the college search and admissions process, Cook said.

And like many high school graduates in the general population, some minority students are not prepared for college courses and often struggle to succeed, Cook said.

Colleges and universities are realizing they need to help address these problems, Cook said.

"There's certainly a recognition that we can't stand and point fingers at K through 12," Cook said. "The colleges have to reach back and play a hand in this, as well."

Hilbert -- where about 7 percent of the roughly 1,100 students are of a minority group -- received a $450,000 grant from the John R. Oishei Foundation to start the new initiative, "From High School to Hilbert College."

The program tries to target average students or those who may need a little nudge to pursue a higher education, said Cheyenne Jumanah, director of multicultural affairs at Hilbert.

The school worked with the Rev. Richard Stenhouse of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Rev. Darius Pridgen of True Bethel Baptist Church in finding candidates for the program.

The 13 students eventually chosen for the program live in the campus apartments and receive daily math and English classes to prepare for the SATs. They are mentored on career paths and study skills, among other things.

They also get to see the fun side of college and even receive a stipend for missing out on three weeks of work during the summer.

"The classes aren't boring," Currie said. "The dorms are comfortable, and there's a lot of eating going on."

Cierra Turner, a junior at the Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School, said she likes the independence college offers, and her experience at Hilbert this summer has renewed her determination to do well in high school.

"You can't slack around all school year and then expect to go to any college you want," said Turner, 16.

"Nobody wants to have a college chosen for them because they couldn't pay attention in school," Currie added.

Cook said he hopes efforts like this will help increase minority numbers in college.

Recent trends are encouraging.

Enrollment in U.S. colleges grew by 2.6 million students between 1993 and 2003, to nearly 17 million, according to an October report co-written by Cook.

Much of that growth was in minority enrollment, which surged 51 percent, or 1.5 million students, the study showed. In comparison, white enrollment grew 3 percent.

Still, the disparity is large when considering 1.9 million blacks were enrolled in college in 2003, while there were 10.5 million whites, Cook said.

"I think it's still mixed news," he said. "There certainly is a growth taking place . . . but there's still work to be done."

At Hilbert, the students in the summer program will return again for three weeks next year, when they will help mentor a new group of high school students and take two courses to earn college credit for Hilbert -- or elsewhere.

Wherever they decide to enroll in college is fine, Jumanah said.

Currie said he is interested in becoming a research scientist and has thought about studying at the University at Buffalo.

Turner is interested in attending a traditional black college.

But the summer program at Hilbert has made an impression on Robert Davis, a junior at the Western New York Maritime Charter High School.

"Now, I'm thinking of going to Hilbert," he said.


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