Last week, from February 5-7, the California branch of the National Action Network (NAN) met in Sacramento to hold its inaugural Western Regional Conference of chapters in California, Arizona, and Nevada.
The Rev. Al Sharpton founded NAN in 1991. The organization observes the spirit and tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., promoting a modern civil rights agenda that includes supporting any type of school that is successfully serving Black students.
Among the events the conference featured were a student rally at the state Capitol to send lawmakers the message that “Black kids deserve great schools too;” ground breaking ceremonies for the newest Fortune School campus, Tecoy Porter College Prep, to be built on Dr. Porter’s Genesis Church property in Sacramento; the convening of leaders from California’s top majority Black schools and honoring them at the NAN Gala Banquet; and the “Bridging the African American Achievement Gap” panel discussion.
Those events coincided with the release of a report titled “African American Leaders Hold the Roadmap to Black Student Achievement” authored by the Fortune School of Education and the National Action Network. African American students in California are the lowest performing subgroup on English language art and math standardized tests. The report proposes how to close their education achievement gap.
Identified in the report are schools with majority Black populations that are in the top half of academic performance in math and English language arts. Of the sixteen schools highlighted, fifteen of them were founded or are led by African Americans.
Dr. Margaret Fortune, Secretary and Treasurer of the NAN Sacramento Chapter, deserves credit for taking the lead in producing the report and assembling the education leaders at the conference. In addition to her NAN duties, she is CEO and President of Fortune School of Education, Board Chair of the California Charter School Association, a Trustee of the California State University, and she has served as an education advisor to two California Governors. Four of her schools are on the list of top performers.
While Dr. Fortune supports the efforts of Gov. Gavin Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond to close the African American achievement gap, she contends that they are not moving the needle on progress fast enough.
The signal that she wants her former education policy colleagues to receive is that “We don’t need more policy, we need more successful schools” and they should turn their attention to consulting with the people like the education leaders in the report who are doing the work and adopt what they are doing to solve the problem.
Her plea to the state is provide incentives to these educators to replicate what they are doing. Today there are sixteen schools on the list of top performers. If they all start another school, that’s 32 schools. As more successful schools come on line, the policymakers can then figure out how to bring those ideas to scale across the state.
The educators that participated in the “Bridging The African American Achievement Gap” panel discussion were Dr. Margaret Fortune, President and CEO Fortune School, Sacramento; Ramona Wilder, CEO and Administrative Director, Wilder’s Preparatory Academy, Inglewood; Eugene Fisher, Board President, Watts Learning Center, Watts; Shawn Brumfield, Principal, Pasadena Rosebud Academy, Altadena; and Richard Da Sylveira, Principal, Cowan Avenue Elementary School, Los Angeles.
When asked what they thought Newsom and Thurmond could do to help their schools, the panel responded loud and clear that African-American students should be written into California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Because LCFF provides additional funds to low-income students most policymakers feel African-American students needs are being satisfied. But, the fact is not all blacks are “broke” and when it comes to their student experience the issues causing their achievement gap are more complicated than income. Race does matter in education. The panel agreed that the support offered to African-American students needs the same specificity provided in policy for English language learning students if it is going to have any impact toward closing the achievement gap.
Assemblymember Shirley N. Weber (D – San Diego) has twice proposed legislation, AB 2635 and AB 575, which would have directed LCFF funding to Black students that does not reference race, but recognizes them as the lowest-performing subgroup that has not already drawn federal funding like special needs students. Both times, concerns about conflicts with Proposition 209, which prohibits state governmental institutions from considering race in public education, was used to stop the bills.
The National Action Network conference has changed the paradigm for how California should approach closing the African American student achievement gap. There are majority Black schools in California that have already closed the gap, although the numbers are small.
Wilder’s Preparatory Academy Charter Middle School in Inglewood has over 80 percent African-American students and over 99 percent students of color. Seventy-four percent of the students qualify for free and reduced price meals. Education researchers would probably predict students at Wilder’s Prep would not perform well on standardized tests. But, the taxpayer-funded public charter school is in the 96 percentile of California schools in English Language arts scoring 30 points above the state average and 14 points above the state average in Math.
Meanwhile, it’s an outrage that the majority of Black students find themselves in schools not making progress because of ineffective policies put out by the state.
Dr. Fortune and the other successful leaders of majority Black schools are telling policymakers they are tired of being outliers in the education of Black students and they want to demonstrate to other educators in the state what works so that finally progress can be made in closing the achievement gap in California schools.
The video of the “Bridging the African American Achievement Gap” panel discussion should be required viewing for Governor Newsom and Superintendent Thurmond.