Rousting skeletons in school cloakrooms

HE'S climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, lived in Guatemala, speaks six languages, including Swahili, stayed for a short spell on the Navajo reservation, taught at the University of Baghdad, and sings Irish music in concert once a year with the Gloucester Hornpipe and Clog Society. Hardly the prototype of an elementary school superintendent for a middle-size Midwest city. But that's Gene Mulcahy.

Before arriving here from New Jersey, Dr. Mulcahy went rafting for a month on the roiling white waters of the Colorado. ``Great way to get ready,'' he jests. How true - because when he came to Evanston, he did some churning up of his own and is still riding the rough waters of public opinion.

Mulcahy began by doing something nobody had ever done before in this Chicago suburb of nearly 74,000: He released students' test scores by race - black scores and white scores.

On standardized achievement tests in '86, many black students trailed behind their white peers by 30 percentile points. That's no missing-tooth gap. It's sizable and has existed on record - although not publicly - for two decades, ever since Evanston schools were integrated in the 1960s.

By spelling out the scores in black and white, Mulcahy contends he has taken a first step in reducing the racial disparity. On last year's tests, blacks ranked at the norm: in the 50th percentile. Whites scored in the 80s. (A child in the 85th percentile, for example, did better than 85 percent of the nation's test takers.)

Such gaps are educational skeletons that rattle in lots of superintendents' closets around the country, not just Evanston's. ``I think that superintendents and communities are concerned, but they're not sure what to do about it,'' says Mulcahy, who took over his Midwest post 10 months ago.

Joseph Hill, former superintendent of the same district and current president of the Evanston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, backs Mulcahy's strategy of parading the problem before the community. ``When the community finally decides it's going to do something about the problem, that's when it will happen,'' says Mr. Hill, who battled the same dilemma for seven years, encumbered by public unawareness and apathy, as well as lack of funding.

To some, Mulcahy is an avant-garde administrator ready to grapple with educational flaws that foster such score differences. But no one is more aware than Mulcahy that some of the town's populace don't view him in such a favorable light. Their criticism is ``subtle,'' he says, explaining that instead of hurling brickbats, disgruntled white parents let their feelings show with comments like ``Well, this [narrowing the gap] is an important emphasis, but what we really need is more resources for the gifted students'' - the assumption being that most of students in that category are white.

Mulcahy, who has a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts, grew up in the Boston community of Roxbury, where the grade and high schools at that time were part black, part white.

``This impacted my views on race,'' he says. But ``one does need to be sensitive to where people are on this issue, and go from there,'' says the Mulcahy, a bachelor who is godfather to several children and sponsors a teen-ager in Guatemala.

Along with a poetic heart, Mulcahy has a Socratic beard, a ready smile, and lengthy hair that can't decide its direction. Doffing the coat of his blue pin stripe, the superintendent settles himself in the one-time parlor of a refurbished Evanston mansion that now serves as the Board of Education headquarters. Quickly, he tags three key factors that put black youngsters at the lower end of the academic totem pole: poverty, high mobility prompted by quests for employment and survival, and discrimination.

``We've figured out how to bus children across town and sit them next to each other, but not how to teach without discrimination,'' he says, focusing on the third cause. Walter Kim, president of the Evanston school board, District 65, agrees that in today's times, busing is no longer enough.

``It's not the '60s anymore. We're trying to move ahead,'' he says, giving Mulcahy a vote of confidence.

Before arriving in Evanston, Mulcahy served as superintendent of schools at Teaneck, N.J., and assistant superintendent in Hartford, Conn. With this experience behind him, he is well aware there's no overnight remedy for the academic gaps between blacks and whites. But he's starting with both teachers and the parents of underachievers. He terms this the ``second level of integration,'' busing being the first.

``We live in a society where there are social and racial biases. Teachers in this society are affected like the rest of us,'' Mulcahy explains, maintaining that built-in biases often make people expect less of certain segments of society.

He's convinced that these low-level expectations squelch black students' - or anyone's - performance at the outset. ``Quidquid recipitur, recipitur: That's sort of like, `You get what you expect,''' he quips, well able to pull apt sayings from his Latin and Greek classical background with the ease that most people parrot Ben Franklin-isms.

He's trying to encourage his staff to have high expectations for all students. Through readings, research projects, and listening to guest lecturers, teachers are exposed to nonprejudicial teaching techniques. Eventually, they'll be evaluated by observers as they play out their equality approach at the blackboard.

On the parental side, Mulcahy says, ``We know that student success almost never happens unless the home and school work together.'' So he's set up workshops with a black educator, Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu, who's guiding parents in such areas as creating academic environments, monitoring homework, handling the allure of television, and dealing with peer influence.

In addition to special tutorial services, he's established a special handbook, sheared of educational jargon, which helps parents prepare kids for school. And he's using neighborhood and church networks to pull more black parents into school activities.

``Some of our pupils are the children of teen-agers who themselves are children. They have no real sense of how to manage the growth and education of a child, so it's our obligation to reach out and help, to be available,'' explains Mulcahy, who is guardian over Evanston's nine grade schools, four junior highs, and one school in neighboring Skokie.

William Sampson, a sociology professor at Northwestern University and a black voice in the community, lends support to Mulcahy, not always in methods, but certainly in goals. ``I'm not convinced that his way is always the best way to do it,'' says the professor, who is also a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. ``But anyone who says he wants to narrow the gap is someone with whom we can work.''

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