Superintendent David Brewer's departure could prove a catalyst for sustainable efforts to improve the quality of education for LAUSD's long-neglected Black students. Encouraging signs include a press conference by Black leaders, and concerned others, following Brewer's buy-out. Its purpose was neither to hail nor bury Brewer, but rather to signal an uncharacteristic display of unity on the critical importance of improving Black students' education. Subsequently, a task force was formed and is currently planning how to best aid these students.
Incoming superintendent, Dr. Ramon Cortines, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, "Many of our African American students, especially boys…have not made the progress they should. They have just as much potential, but I believe we have to address some of the social issues." (Former Superintendent Roy Romer said the same thing, but subsequently approved a watered-down version of the African American Learner Initiative (AALI) that focused exclusively on Black students.) Assuming Cortines' concern is genuine, more attention on Black students' needs could be forthcoming.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, top officials in his Partnership for LA Schools (PLAS), and members of the Board of Education have also agreed that Black students warrant focused attention. LAUSD has a shrinking Black student population, (Villaraigosa's schools are overwhelmingly Latino) and focusing on their needs is all the more pressing. Coupled with concerted Black advocacy, Cortines' stated concern for addressing Black students needs augers well for the likelihood of improving their education.
LAUSD's attempts to deal with the special needs of Black students have been abominably weak. Despite being the district's lowest achievers-even immigrant students achieve at a higher level in a relatively short time-Black students arguably, are the district's lowest priority. They have never received attention commensurate with their needs, and we all bear some responsibility for their neglect.
Initiatives aimed at improving Black student achievement have missed the mark, chiefly because they were never the target. The landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision has done virtually nothing to help these students, neither has "integration" policies, legislation and court-orders. Most such attempts died a slow death, including school district and court reversals of desegregation policies. LAUSD's integration efforts were a mission impossible; its schools are probably more segregated than as ever and only remnants of the flagship Crawford vs. LA Board of Education case remain.
The district's low priority, "experimental" programs targeting Black students were not sustained. The "Triad," 95th Elementary, Bret Harte Junior High and Washington Preparatory High School, Ten Schools Project in South Central Los Angeles, and other highly touted camouflaged iterations like busing and Title I Programs for disadvantaged students, also failed to address the needs of Black children. Even the school board's singular action that focused exclusively on Black Students, (AALI) out of the public eye morphed quickly into the politically acceptable "A Culturally Relevant Education That Benefits Africa American Students and All Other Students", effectively killing the intent of the AALI. (Race-labeling constraints, notwithstanding, the AALI was developed by the Summit of African American Leaders, a group of educators and interested others interested in improving the quality of education for Black students. It was adopted by the school board in June 2001 supported by the district's own data.) AALI was a short-lived aberration.
Lessons not yet learned: District programs must be closely monitored- externally; constant community pressure is indispensable, not only for sound policies, but ongoing oversight to ensure implementation of the policies that benefit Black students.
The recently formed task force to help improve the quality of their education has the potential for marshalling sorely needed political clout. And success will result primarily from political will, not data-driven results. LAUSD's own research and data support the need to focus on Black students. But disparities in student achievement and school funding persist: poor inner-city schools are underfunded at the expense of students most in need. Many with some responsibility related to educating Black students-parents, education officials and teachers head the list-are derelict in meeting that responsibility and are therefore part of the problem, not the solution. They must no longer accede to dysfunctional policies and practices that cripple Black children. Constant vigilance is imperative.
A sustained unified effort by Blacks together with the concurrence and sanction of the incoming superintendent that the needs of Black students deserve explicit focus seems a hopeful beginning. We know that Black students are as intelligent and capable as any others. Accordingly, LAUSD policies and programs must acknowledge and challenge their full potential. Anything less is unacceptable.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org