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College tour can help close achievement gap, organizer says

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When Alvin Owens talks about the Spring Break College Tour, which takes mostly African-American students on a whirlwind tour of colleges in the South and East Coast, he also isn’t afraid to talk about the elephant in the room: the achievement gap.

It refers to the academic gap that exists in the Kenosha Unified School District between black students and their white counterparts. It is considerable — Owens calls it the biggest in the country — and it bothers him.

“Our academic achievement gap is getting bigger. That is something we cannot accept or tolerate,” he said. “It’s up to us to close the gap.”

When he says “us,” he’s referring to parents and the larger community.

At a recent meeting with parents about the upcoming tour, he and Gary Vargas, student liaison at Bradford High School and an adviser to the African American Male Initiative, goaded parents to stay on top of their children’s academics, telling them they need to be checking school websites, perusing online grades and meeting with guidance counselors and teachers to learn of opportunities for their children.

Vargas noted that Bradford and other schools in Unified have numerous resources to help students who are struggling. But they have to take advantage of them, he said.

“We’re trying to do what we can on our end to get those D’s and F’s to C’s,” he said. “The way we close that gap is to utilize those resources, check on your kids. If your kid is struggling, you come see us.”

Owens compared the situation to a baking a cake. If you just put cake mix in the oven, it doesn’t become a cake.

“It doesn’t rise,” he said, noting it needs eggs, flour and other ingredients.

“We’re not rising; we’re not putting the right ingredients together,” he said.

Owens sees the tour as an ingredient in that successful mix, because it focuses on college readiness.

Walking a college campus can be eye-opening, former tour students said, and Owens requires students on the tour to take part in mock interviews for three things: a college scholarship, college entrance and a job.

“You all have college potential,” Vargas told the group. “We need to encourage our kids from this age. We just need to stay on them.”

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