September/ October 2013 Dropouts Tell No Tales

An African American journalist returns to his college alma mater to find out why so many students like him never make it out.

By Jamaal Abdul-alim

As a DJ, I formed a rap group with my stepbrother, the son of my father’s new wife. When I saw my stepbrother’s homework, I noticed that it seemed more involved than what we had at Marshall. So I transferred to the school he went to, Greendale High School, in order to get a better education. Truth be told, the curriculum at Greendale was so rigorous that I couldn’t hack it, particularly when it came to geometry and biology. My GPA must have barely been above a 1.0. I felt estranged at the predominantly white school. I remember one episode of storming out of class when the other students began to laugh at a reference to roaches during a reading of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. Though they were ostensibly laughing at the plight of the black family that was the focus of the book, it felt as if they were laughing at black people in general.

It was during that time that I became enthralled with recordings of the fiery speeches of Malcolm X and Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, samplings of which I first heard through the music of Public Enemy. What resonated most with me was when they would speak about how educationally estranged black people had become in the United States because black history is not reflected in the schools.

After transferring from Greendale back to John Marshall, I emulated the oratory of Malcolm X and Minister Farrakhan in my English essays and a column I wrote for the high school newspaper under the pen name Jason X. When I was sixteen I converted to Islam and changed my name.

Having left the influence of gang life behind, I was the type of high school student who carried a black briefcase, and I once circulated a petition to get a class on black authors to replace the ones we had on British and American authors. The class was ultimately implemented and eventually became so popular that the school had to offer three sections.

Two chance things transpired in high school that led me to pursue a career as a journalist, and one of them took place as a direct result of UWM. First, during my junior year, I won first place in an essay contest sponsored by the old Milwaukee Journal. The essay, about how to end violence in the inner city, fetched $100 and was published in the paper. I thought about that $100 as I found myself cleaning bathrooms the summer after high school graduation. I figured if I had gotten $100 for one essay that I wrote at the last minute, I might as well try to find a way to write an article a day five days a week and try to get $100 for each one instead of scrubbing toilets for minimum wage.

The second thing that led me to become a journalist was a visit from a black journalism instructor at UWM. Her name was Linda Presberry, and at the time she served as the UWM journalism department’s “liaison” when it came to speaking to largely black high schools, such as John Marshall. After Ms. Presberry spoke to us at John Marshall for career day or some similar event, I followed up with her on how to enroll in UWM. Enamored with Ms. Presberry for reasons that transcended journalism, I used to go visit her on campus in order to get a feel for what it was like, especially during the last semester of my senior year, when I only had to go to school half a day because I had enough credits to graduate.

I remember the elation I felt when I got my acceptance letter in the spring of 1991; one of the first things I did was tell Jihad, co-owner of the King Drive Deli, a Muslim-owned deli where I used to work as a cashier in the afternoons during my senior year before my evening job as a janitor. “Ah, that’s nothing,” Jihad responded. “Everybody gets accepted there.”

Even though he was basically right, I hadn’t known it at the time, and his comment made me feel deflated. Nevertheless, I began my studies at UWM that fall.

The most dangerous detour on the road to a college degree, especially for black students, typically arises freshman year, when students take placement tests to determine whether they’re ready for college-level courses or need non-credit “remediation.” According to a study of public universities by the nonprofit group Complete College America, 39.1 percent of African American students at four-year schools were assigned in 2006 to remedial math and English courses, versus 13.6 percent of whites. Two years later, 69.5 percent of African Americans had not completed the course or courses for which they were remediated; the noncompletion rate for whites wasn’t much better, at 63 percent.

Math is an especially big stumbling block, particularly for students whose high schools didn’t properly prepare them. I fell into that category, as did Mark Briggs, a fellow John Marshall and UWM alumni who now works for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. “We could have tested out of 090, 095, 105 [UWM’s remedial and basic college-level math courses] if we had taken algebra 1 and 2, calculus, and trig,” Briggs explained to me. “But the guidance department [at John Marshall] didn’t tell us.” Research has shown that students do worse on math placement exams when they don’t take math during their senior year in high school—a mistake I made myself.

At UWM, I ended up having to take a remedial course known as the Essentials of Algebra. I barely got out, with a C+; anything less than a C would not have counted. I then tried to take introductory for-credit algebra three times. Twice I withdrew because I found the courses too difficult. Once I earned a big fat F.

It wasn’t until the summer of 1993 that I took a transferable college algebra course at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC), and passed with a C.

So what was different about algebra at MATC versus UWM? Beyond the fact that the MATC class was an intensive summer course that I treated like a part-time job, there was one important distinction. Unlike my college algebra classes at UWM, the one I took at MATC was led by an instructor who was born in the United States. The college algebra classes at UWM, on the other hand, were taught by foreign nationals who spoke with thick accents that made an already difficult subject even more difficult for me to understand (roughly half the teaching assistants at UWM are foreign nationals).

Jamaal Abdul-alim is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who specializes in coverage of higher education.


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