Lincoln Chandler is no stranger to the issue of the achievement gap between black and white students in U.S. schools.

Chandler grew up in North Lawndale, attended Whitney Young High School, and went on to attend The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), breaking all the stereotypes and clearing all the hurdles many young black men face in education.

A little over a year ago, Chandler, a doctoral student at MIT, decided to write his dissertation on the black/white student academic achievement gap. When he considered a subject for his study, he didn’t have to look far. In fact, his inspiration was right next door.

Chandler, 29, is studying Oak Park’s elementary and middle school schools’ academic achievement gap. Along with his research advisor, Arnold Barnett, an MIT professor of management science, Chandler began working in February of this year.

In studying the issue of the black student achievement gap in public schools for his dissertation, he chose Oak Park’s District 97 in part because of his familiarity with and curiosity about Oak Park.

Growing up in North Lawndale, he never associated any kind of achievement gap problems with Oak Park.

“An achievement gap is something I usually apply to the Chicago school system but not the suburban areas,” he said. “I never thought about Oak Park having an achievement gap problem. It just struck me as an interesting area of study.”

Chandler has spent several months poring over data provided by the school district.

Among his preliminary findings is that income levels are not a direct indicator of student achievement in the Oak Park schools. Chandler has been analyzing three years worth of Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) scores of eighth-grade students in the district, looking at actual score data rather than percentage categories along with other student data.

Chandler and his advisor have looked at adequate yearly progress (AYP) data, and those students who meet, exceed, or are below state standards, based on federal guidelines under the federal No Child Left Behind legislation.

While every Dist. 97 elementary school made AYP last year, some black, low-income and special education subgroup students at its two middle schools-Gwendolyn Brooks and Percy Julian Middle Schools-scored poorly in their ISATs.

Only 38 percent of black eighth-graders and 33.9 percent of economically disadvantaged eighth-graders at Julian met or exceeded state standards in math. At Brooks Middle School, 35.8 percent of black eighth-grade students and 33.9 percent of economically disadvantaged eighth-graders met or exceeded standards. In contrast, 79.9 percent of white eighth-graders at Brooks, and 87 percent of white eighth-graders at Julian Middle School met or exceeded standards.

District officials there estimate a gap of 20-50 percent between white students and black, special education and economically disadvantaged students.

Chandler, whose field of study is operations research, focusing primarily on public school systems, said his earlier analysis was to get a sense of the district and its students. The focus now, he says, is to understand all of the numbers.

“Conventional wisdom says [income] would have an influence, but we don’t really see that,” said Chandler.

Another aspect in his early findings was the question of whether the gap was related to an influx of minority families into the Oak Park school district. Chandler said that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Oak Park, which has 52,524 residents, according to the 2000 Census, has a black population of 22 percent while whites represent nearly 69 percent of the population.

Chandler has expanded his analysis to include third- and fifth-grade students over the last three years.

Chandler said it’s a common practice to look at the gap in terms of how it affects students now instead of in the past.

“The gap is a living thing-it doesn’t just show up,” he said. “You need to not only look at those eighth-graders, but look at where they were in the third grades because that’s where it usually starts.”

Chandler says his work is “at the beginning of the end,” and that he’ll have a summary report of his findings ready to present to the Dist. 97 school board by summer 2007.