By Ryan Smith
Years ago, I met an 11 year old Black male student who lived in the heart of Watts, a neighborhood in Los Angeles known as one of America’s poorest communities. He asked me if he could apply for a student leadership program I developed for promising students in urban schools. I told him sure—but he’d have to interview like all the other participants. I asked him to bring an object that represented him as an individual and to prepare to present it.
Dee, a 6th grader often known more for his rambunctiousness than success, came before the panel of judges on interview day and took out one solitary penny. He held the coin up high and stated: “This is a penny and I collect them. This penny is just like me. When you see a penny, you don’t see much. But pennies become dimes, dimes become quarters, quarters become dollars, dollars become thousands, and thousands become millions. I am somebody. Believe in me.”
That day Dee made a powerful statement. He and his future mattered. Though it remains abundantly clear that like Dee, all Black children across this country can achieve at the highest levels, the data paint a dire picture of an education system—preschool through college—that systematically squanders Black talent.
Report Highlights Success
Black Minds Matter, a recent report published by our organization The Education Trust–West, highlights that thousands of California Black students are hitting college ready marks and graduating successfully. Unfortunately this isn’t the case for all of the nearly 1 million black youth under the age of 25 in the state.
Among California’s many racial and ethnic groups, Black students, whether from upper or lower income families, are the least likely to have access to Advancement Placement classes, be placed in a full sequence of college-preparatory courses, and complete a college degree. They are most likely to be taught by novice, low-paid teachers, and while in school be suspended or expelled. Nationally, Black girls are suspended six times as often as their White counterparts.
The late civil rights icon Julian Bond once said, “Violence is Black children going to schools for 12 years and receiving 6 years’ worth of education.” Today if the deaths of unarmed Black youth by law enforcement across the country tell young Black Americans that their lives matter less than others, the experiences of Black students in school tell them that their minds matter less too.
Policy Builds Barriers
We tend to point outward at issues of poverty and parenting to explain the plight of Black students. While poverty certainly plays a role in the disparities we see, the data largely reflect a history of institutional decisions—both sins of commission and omission—that we as educators, policymakers, and the public have made. In 1852, as part of the fugitive slave law, California banned Black children from public schooling even though California was a free state at the time (note: It was the Mexican American student’s case, Mendez v. Westminster School District, that desegregated the state’s public schools and led way to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954). A century later, Californians passed Prop. 209, which outlawed the consideration of race in college admissions and cut African American students’ admissions in half at colleges like UCLA. We’ve implemented many more policies that have often built obstacles rather than bridges to Black student success (as noted in report’s policy timeline).
Today we often continue these mistakes. Education leaders, not Black students or their families, decide which schools to equip with college-preparatory classes and where to place our most effective teachers. We’re complicit in the fact that nationally less than a third of our high schools with the highest percentage of Black and Latino students offer calculus while inversely more than half of high schools with the lowest percentage of Black and Latino students offer the course. We’ve created excessive barriers to college degrees by allowing students of color to languish in remedial courses for years without recourse.
It Doesn’t Have To Be
It doesn’t have to be this way. We find examples of schools and districts across California closing opportunity and achievement gaps. Districts in Oakland, San Bernardino, and San Francisco have taken up the challenge by launching efforts exclusively focused on turning the curve on Black student achievement. Last year in San Diego, Kearny Digital Media and Design School graduated 100% of its Black high school students at a school where 70% of the students are low income. The Umoja Community, a community college program, has affiliate chapters at 34 colleges and creates small communities of students to increase college persistence and reduce remediation rates.
We also see increased activism to support Black students. You don’t have to look further than the recent calls for more supportive and racially conscious environments at schools like the University of Missouri, Yale, UCLA, and Berkeley High School to witness this. Earlier this month we, along with California Alliance for African American Educators and other groups, helped mobilize close to 1,000 Black students to California’s State Capitol to advocate for educational equity and access in all schools.
I firmly believe we can close opportunity and achievement gaps for Black children in this generation. For Dee and other Black youth’s sake, I hope we all believe that as well, and act on it with urgency.
Ryan Smith is the executive director of Education Trust-West.
The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.