Panel and community members discussing historically black colleges and universities at Albemarle High School

Five years ago, on Albemarle High School principal Jay Thomas’ first back-to-school night, a parent presented him with a tough situation.

“My child came home today and said she was the only black child in her upper-level class,” the parent wrote to Thomas on a survey response card. “Please explain to me how I explain that to her.”

Five years later, Albemarle High School now reports a 200 percent increase in minority students in upper-level classes.

“It’s a product of the programs we have like AVID, Core Plus, Young Men with Great Minds, and symposiums and having conversations like this,” Thomas said to nearly 100 parents and students who attended an information session about opportunities at historically black colleges and universities Tuesday at AHS.

However, according to Valerie Gregory, Associate Dean of Admissions at the University of Virginia, preparing for college begins by taking advanced classes in middle school.

“It puts you on a track that allows you, when you get into high school, to continue to take the most advanced classes,” Gregory said, noting that she often sees students who take less-challenging courses, get straight A’s, yet still suffer when they get to college.

“Each year you should be challenging yourself a little more, so by the time you become a senior in high school you’re kind of at the top of your game and taking the most challenging classes your high school has to offer,” Gregory said, adding that forming relationships with teachers, counselors, and the community was also imperative.

One aspect of the night’s conversation focused on how going to a historically black college or university has the potential to help African-American students connect with their cultural lineage.

AHS teacher Wes Bellamy, who attended South Carolina State, said his HBCU experience instilled in him a sense of confidence that he sees many of his students lacking.

“I think a lot of our kids here don’t necessarily have as much confidence because they don’t know as much about their heritage or history because for many of them they believe that their history starts with slavery,” Bellamy said.

“When you get to go somewhere and see individuals who are just like you and are achieving,” Bellamy added, “whose parents are doing well and you learn in your textbooks and readings that you come from a very rich lineage…it exudes through you.”

Dr. Bernard Hairston, Director of Community Engagement for Albemarle County Public Schools, said Greek life historically serves important leadership functions on HBCU campuses.

“Most people think that [Greek life] is all about the social experience,” Hairston said. “Part of the matriculation process of being a member of a black Greek organization is that there are standards by which you must operate.”

“When Principal Thomas is looking for student input, he’s going to go to his student council leaders,” Hairston added. “On the black college campuses, the president of those colleges are going to go to your Greek organizations because…there are high expectations of you as a potential leader in the community because of the history from which [your organization] came.”

But Monica Green, a 2006 graduate of Bowie State University, and Ryan Akins, Chair of the HBCU Festival, said despite an HBCU’s population being largely African-American, students will still encounter cultures different from his or her own.

“Just because you’re black [doesn’t mean] you’re going to fit into a black university,” Green said. “I grew up in Buckingham County…and going to Bowie State right out of high school was a culture shock.”

“There are a lot of different types of black people, and I didn’t know that,” Green added. “Rural black people are different from city black people, wealthy black people are different from poor black people, and you’re going to find all of those on your college campus, as well as people of other races.”

“You have students from all around the country and the world,” Akins said, noting that he met students from the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and Asia during his tenure at Howard University.

Albemarle senior Dominique Talley and sophomore Jesus Lazo said they are both considering HBCUs to be in an environment where they see other African-American people succeeding.

“I think students see Mr. Bellamy and other black teachers as role models,” Lazo said. “If Mr. Bellamy can get there and succeed, than why can’t I do it?”

The HBCU fair will be held on February 22, 2014 at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia.