Public schools fail to educate Black students and a prolonged silence of the total community, parents and Black leadership especially, contributes to the problem. Inequities and near criminal negligence by urban school districts like the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) have virtually ensured that Black students do not receive a quality education.
The African American Learners Initiative (2001) was a notable exception; it focused exclusively on LAUSD’s Black students, but out of the public’s eye, the Initiative morphed into the circuitous, “Action Plan for Culturally Relevant Education that Benefits Black Students and All Other Students.” Even this weak substitute for the Initiative was not mandated; essentially, implementation was left up to school principals.
The metamorphosis from the African American Initiative to the Action Plan for Black students and adding “….and all other students” was the death knell. In effect, it was another instance of LAUSD’s refusal to address the specific needs of Black students: Historically, every LAUSD program that was ostensibly designed to focus on these students was ad hoc, inadequately funded and never sustainable.
Black leadership, external as well as within LAUSD, is critical but also largely silent on the District’s failure to properly educate Black students. And neither the current nor previous boards of education-nor Black elected officials-have demanded that Black students receive equitable resources indispensable for a quality education. The fact that the Black student population continues to dwindle increases, not diminishes, the challenge. Clearly, the political will and sustained community pressure necessary to reverse Black students’ downward spiral are still conspicuously absent. Similarly, the parade of LAUSD superintendents in recent years did little, if anything, to ensure equitable resources and culturally and linguistically responsive teaching for Black students.
LAUSD’s increasing number of charter schools confirms parents’ dissatisfaction with traditional schools. But the proliferation of charter schools does nothing to alleviate problems for the schools left behind. Further, there is no comprehensive policy for improving these schools, most of which pose the greatest challenges but have the fewest resources. Their pressing issues range from disproportionately low achievement and unsafe facilities to ineffective teachers and inequitable funding. Unfortunately, it seems the schools most in need remain among LAUSD’s lowest, not top priorities.
Whatever benefits accrue to charters, be it teaching methods or innovative curricula, they are not shared with traditional schools, where most Black students attend. Even when charter schools are successful in improving academic achievement, non-charters do not benefit and may actually worsen because too many effective teachers and the more sophisticated and assertive parents chose to leave.
Four years ago, the Los Angeles Urban League launched a well-funded, broadly coordinated effort to improve conditions in a designated area of South Central Los Angeles that includes Crenshaw High School. A slew of innovations, groups and organizations including the Bradley Foundation, the Urban League, and University of Southern California came together to improve the quality of education for Crenshaw’s students. Arguably, their efforts would be enhanced if the mandate required an unapologetic focus on the specific needs of the schools’ Black students.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa publicly supports the need to focus on Black students; the question is whether his Partnership does so consistently. In 2008, a community organization in South Central Los Angeles recommended that the Partnership appoint a Black student coordinator whose responsibilities would be similar to those of the English language coordinator. The group got no response.
LAUSD has always neglected Black students, as has urban school districts throughout America. Transforming negligence into strategies and programs that improve Black students’ performance means developing and actually employing new paradigms that take into account the needs of all students.
The Coalition for Black Student Equity (CBSE) was formed two years ago after the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced it would conduct an investigation that focused solely on LAUSD’s English language learners. Black organizations successfully pressured OCR to include Black students in the investigation. As a result, they were included–although on a limited basis. The recent, “Agreement to Resolve,” between LAUSD and OCR, includes deadlines for responding to OCR’s specific requirements. We’ll see what happens, follow up is what counts.
Other community and parent groups also are attempting to address LAUSD’s failure to properly educate Black students. However, virtually all are doing so unilaterally even though there is a pressing need for sustained collaborative efforts, i.e., an umbrella group (s) whose combined strength is much more likely to influence the Board of Education and just as important, also influence administrators and teachers who are the ones responsible for implementing policy and programs.
Helping Black students to achieve their full potential necessitates having high expectations for them and actively working to remove barriers to their success. Like all other students, they are obviously endowed with the potential for excellence. However, unlike others, their unique history and culture require consistent focus and resources commensurate with their needs. It follows that their parents and communities, together with the education establishment, all have a responsibility break their silence on the failure of schools to provide an equitable, quality education for Black children, who deserve no less.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org