Really? This Is How High Achievement Is Greeted?

03/20/2015 12:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2015

The first time I visited Elmont Memorial High School in New York's Nassau County almost eight years ago, then-principal Al Harper showed me the space where he had carved out the science research lab. It was crammed with myriad equipment. Just what I can't remember, except that there was a cage and some microscopes and beakers, and that it smelled vaguely of animals -- maybe lab mice. It wasn't a jumble, but in reality it was a small office clearly being used by more than a couple of students.

Harper told me he had gotten a small grant to start the lab and had great hopes for expanding the science research class and propelling some of his students into scientific careers.

Harper was determined that his mostly working-class African-American students have the same kind of opportunities that upper-middle-class white students on Long Island have, and the science lab was clearly part of this ambition

A few weeks ago his successor, John Capozzi, showed me the same room; it was even more crammed with equipment.

This time around, though, that lab had incubated the work of the school's salutatorian, Harold Ekeh, who was recognized as an Intel Science Talent Search semifinalist for research that he politely declined to describe to me other than to say it had to do with Parkinson's disease. I understood his demurral when I saw the paper's title: "The role of PARP-1 in MeHg-induced dopaminergic dysfunction and mitochondrial DNA depletion." He probably figured I wouldn't understand it without lengthy explanation, and he was right.

When I asked Harold what he was planning to do next year, he said he was hoping to pursue a career in biochemistry and was considering attending college in either Massachusetts or Connecticut. That announcement was met by his fellow students with hoots. "Just tell her," they said, at which point he allowed that he was deciding whether to accept a scholarship to Harvard or Yale.

His fellow students clearly took enormous pride in his accomplishments -- and he was only the second-top student in their class. The top student, Ashley Simon, who also conducted research in that cramped space, hasn't made any college decisions yet but is hoping to study biomedical engineering in college.

I reflected that from the investment seven years ago in a small amount of space, some equipment, and a dedicated science research teacher has flowered the possibility of at least two scientists who could help solve the nation's medical problems.

But here's the thing.

Both Harold and Ashley -- and the other seniors Capozzi had gathered to talk with me -- reported that their accomplishments are greeted with skepticism by people outside Elmont. Ashley said she recently told someone from elsewhere on Long Island that she had earned fives (the highest score) on five Advanced Placement exams, and the person was surprised that that was possible at Elmont. "I said I work hard and have great teachers," Ashley said. But that clearly didn't assuage the person's doubts.

I asked the kids how people they meet explain the high academic achievement of the school, and they said, in one voice, "They think we're cheating."

One student said, using words I would have hoped would never be used by a young person, "I feel we have to work harder and do better than other students just to get the same respect, because we're African-American."

The idea that the achievement of African-American students and a predominantly African-American school is so casually questioned is pretty appalling. But it is simply part of the landscape for Elmont and its students.

To me, however, Elmont is a prime example of what is possible for ordinary public schools when all their systems support teaching and learning, and when the educators believe in their students. Just one statistic says a lot: Elmont is on track to see 99.2 percent of its students graduate, about half of them with an advanced diploma.

I'll be reporting more from my recent visit to Elmont in subsequent columns, but I did want to say that as exciting as it was to be around so many smart, thoughtful students, it was a bit dismaying to hear that they are still fighting the battles that their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents had to fight.