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Parents are making changes too. Alice and Craig Tillman enforce a library-like atmosphere--no telephone calls, music, TV or video games--while their four kids do homework. Karen Cross, Sterling's mother, says she and her husband were angry and confused when Sterling's older brother and sister got poor grades. "Knowing it's a good school system, you assume that once you show that you're educated and involved parents, the teachers will take it from there," she says. "So when the problems persist, you think it can only be because you're black." Gradually, through conversations with white parents, she discovered that they were more active advocates for their children. "I know a lot of white parents who are more than willing to tell a principal that a particular program doesn't work for their child and demand a change--and they keep demanding changes until they find the right one. Unlike many black parents, they feel that they are experts and the school staff works for them," says Cross, who became so active that she is now the school-board president.
It's still too soon to tell whether all these efforts will pay off. But there are some signs that the chasm is beginning to narrow. Among fourth-graders, for example, 92% of whites met state reading standards last year, and so did nearly 70% of their black classmates, up from a mere 35% three years ago. Nonetheless, superintendent Fornero gives Ann Arbor's performance only a grade of C because "some people still don't believe we have a problem." Until they do, he says, the path to an A will be long and uphill.