ANNAPOLIS – Then only 12 years old, Freeman Hrabowski III huddled in a jail cell, calming his classmates and friends. The others were no more than 10 or 11, but for five days they clung together, singing freedom songs and crying.
It was 1960s Alabama and hundreds of African-American children had just been arrested for silently protesting outside of the city hall.
They came to kneel and pray for the simple things most children take for granted today – the right to go a movie theater, drink from any water fountain and get an equal education.
Hrabowski, now 52, learned some of his biggest lessons about life and racism in those few days.
“What the experience taught me was the power of the individual to make a difference,” he said.
Today, Hrabowski, president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is one of the most prominent African-Americans in Maryland and a lead promoter of minority achievement.
His platform: no matter race or gender, an individual can make a difference.
At a September state Board of Education meeting, Hrabowski, arms flailing and voice rising, turned into a gospel preacher, describing the widening achievement gap with contempt.
African-American students give up because of the achievement gap, he said. Teachers accept less, contributing to the divide.
It was not the first time Hrabowski had spoken of the latest education fixation with the achievement gap. For years, he has been an outspoken advocate for minority achievement.
He’s put UMBC on the map with the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program, designed to attract African-American students to science, math and engineering fields.
Nationally, Hrabowski has spoken to school boards in nearly 40 states, lobbying officials on the importance of enhancing opportunities for African- American students.
“He’s developed such a remarkable record of supporting the young minorities,” said University System of Maryland Chancellor William Kirwan. “He’s transformed UMBC into a very fine institution. It’s one thing to create a vision. It’s another thing to pull it off.”
The achievement gap between African-American students and white or Asian students is a national, not just a state, problem. The problem has become so acute that new federal schools legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act, has addressed it through changes in elementary and secondary education funding.
Educators, including Hrabowski, are increasingly concerned about Maryland’s gap.
“We, as a nation, are not being honest to ourselves,” he said. “Those gaps are much wider than we think.”
“It’s not just black people concerned about black kids. It’s educators concerned about children.”
In Maryland, African-American students have consistently performed behind their white peers. On average, African-American eighth-graders score four years behind white eighth-graders in math, almost three years behind in reading, more than three years behind in science and more than two years behind in writing, according to Education Trust, a Washington-based education organization.
“We cannot afford as a country to have that large of a gap,” Hrabowski said. “We’re talking about the future of our society.”
As an African-American male, Hrabowski knows what it’s like to be treated differently.
Segregation was the norm in Birmingham, where he spent most of his childhood.
Hrabowski and his parents were God-fearing, avid churchgoers and leaders in the state’s civil rights movement. They would meet weekly in the church to discuss strategies to promote civil rights awareness, all because they had the “hope that things could be better in America for all people.”
At age 15, Hrabowski went to Virginia’s Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, to study mathematics. He later earned two other degrees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where “it was completely a white world.”
After several years of working in various positions at colleges and universities – including a 10-year stint at Coppin State College – Hrabowski came to UMBC in 1987, knowing he had a challenge.
UMBC was – and still is – predominantly white, but Hrabowski envisioned a school where African-Americans could excel.
Hrabowski has spent years trying to raise awareness and make a change in minority achievement at UMBC and on a national scale. Under his leadership, UMBC has moved out of the shadow of the state’s flagship university in College Park and become a haven for African-Americans interested in becoming scientists, engineers and mathematicians.
“I think he’s done a wonderful job. He’s really served as a sterling example of university presidents in Maryland,” said Rainbow/Push Coalition Washington Bureau Chief Joe Leonard.
“I’m a historian. I see things in a matter of evolution. He’s really building upon what other people have done and expanding it.”
Since it began in 1988, Hrabowski’s brainchild, the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program, has graduated 297 students, the majority of whom were African-American. Most have become doctors and leaders in engineering and technology.
“It’s more than a paperwork solution,” said Meyerhoff Director LaMont Toliver. “It has changed expectations. (African-American students) don’t come in wishing to survive. They come in expecting to succeed because of the precedent set by others.”
To students, Hrabowski is more than just an educator; he’s a mentor.
“For a lot of us he’s really like a father figure,” said Lynnette Burks, a 1997 graduate of the Meyerhoff program. “He takes each and every one of us under his wing.”
Hrabowski’s achievements are many. He’s co-written two books on boosting African-American achievement. He’s been featured in The New York Times and on the “Today” show talking about minority achievement, and in 1999, he was voted The Sun’s Marylander of the Year.
“I consider him to be one of the great assets of Maryland and of higher education,” said Gov. Parris Glendening. “He has a vision and he can articulate that vision to students to motivate them.”
When he learned Hrabowski’s name mentioned in connection with other jobs, Glendening said he talked to the college president. “I would tell him we loved him and we needed him here.”
Though the future is uncertain, Hrabowski said his heart will always be with UMBC and the progress he has made there over the past 15 years.
“This is a place where it’s cool to be smart,” he said. “It’s hard for me to imagine a life beyond UMBC. I live and breathe UMBC.”