State, districts and schools all have a role to play in supporting Black students, panel says

Progress has been too slow in building a path to success for Black students, Education Trust–West Executive Director Christopher Nellum said Tuesday at an EdSource roundtable. Much still lies ahead, he added.

“More than any other community, Black families value education. Folks risk their lives for it,” he said.

Nellum joined other educators, advocates and a student on EdSource’s latest panel to discuss what schools, along with the state, should be doing to support California’s Black students who for decades have scored the lowest on state standardized tests among the state’s ethnic and racial groups.  

EdSource’s roundtable discussion comes amid recent pushes for the state to direct $300 million in new funding to provide Black students with opportunities to learn. However, Gov. Gavin Newsom has expressed concern that targeting support toward a racial group would violate Proposition 209, which prohibits action based on race. Instead, he has directed more funding toward the highest-poverty schools, which has caused frustration from those hoping to direct more resources specifically toward Black students.

The most recent Smarter Balanced test scores show that just 30% of the state’s Black students met English language arts standards last school year and just 16% met math standards. In contrast, 61% of white students met the standards in English language arts and 48% in math last year. 

The new funding, which Newsom is calling an “equity multiplier,” would be a piece of a larger effort to address underachievement of racial and ethnic groups in all schools and districts.

For Noaveyar Lee, an Orange County Department of Education counseling services coordinator, engagement is one of schools’ most important steps to set Black students up for success. Parents and guardians are just as important as educators, she added, especially when it comes to developing an encouraging community for the students.

“As we learned particularly during the pandemic, we need them,” Lee said. “We wouldn’t have been able to connect with students if we weren’t able to essentially come and sit in our students’ homes. That’s what we were doing as we were virtually learning.”

Darryl White, the chairperson for Black Parallel School Board, shared the same sentiment, saying that oftentimes parents don’t receive enough communication about how their children are doing in school. He said schools have to understand that Black parents do want to be involved but that they sometimes need help in taking that step.

“We still have that old nine-week progress report that sets up what’s happening with someone’s child. A parent gets that notice, and sometimes they’re failing and they say to themselves, ‘How come I didn’t know before?’” he said. “It’s that kind of communication that just disrupts the relationship between school and parents.”

White also acknowledged other barriers for Black students, who are typically not accepted into specialty programs at the same rate as other students and are overrepresented in special education, for which the Black Parallel School Board has sued the state in the past. 

The lack of representation is something that junior Lindsey Weatherspoon says she’s noticed at her Los Angeles high school, where she’s enrolled in an accelerated math program. This year, she’s taking pre-calculus instead of algebra II like her peers. She’s enjoyed the academic challenge, which she said has helped her find interest in her career pathway of engineering, but she wishes more of her Black peers could be alongside her.

“I have definitely seen a bunch of Black kids who should be in this math acceleration,” she said. “I’ve seen them all be able to do the same type of math that I can and even better. But the thing is that they just weren’t tested when they should have been.”

Weatherspoon attends Venice High School, where 14% of the student population is Black. The school is involved in Los Angeles Unified’s Black Student Achievement Plan, which provides extra counselors and support to Black students, but Weatherspoon says more must be done.

At Fresno Unified, Wendy McCulley, chief engagement and external partnerships officer said that building up support for the district’s Black students has been done intentionally. Each department has goals targeted toward Black students rather than relying on a single department to do the work, she said. The most important part, she added, has been ensuring that the students have the tools to learn regardless of their environment.

“Our theory of action was we had to get direct services to our kids because our children, as we have, will face racism their whole lives,” McCulley said. “We wanted to give them their tools so that they could get the learning regardless if their teacher was racist or not.”

The district set up summer and after-school support to ensure that, as well as an academic center for suspended students so that they don’t fall behind on learning. 

Ramona Wilder, president and CEO of Wilder Preparatory Academy in Inglewood, has also focused on providing a strong foundation to set its students up for success. The charter school, which serves largely Black students, focuses on teaching kids to learn to read and write by kindergarten rather than third grade. She acknowledged that that goal may not be as easy to meet at other schools, particularly public schools, where students tend to move around more.

“More conversation is needed to develop a plan to really support the needs for bringing our African Americans out of that lowest subgroup population. And it’s going to take funding to do that,” she said. 

Ultimately, Nellum said, it’s important to acknowledge that many of the problems and barriers that arise for Black students are systemic. It’s a matter of the state, districts and schools not shying away from the harder work of changing policies and how resources are distributed, he said.

“I think folks have fears that if they focus too much on Black students that those things won’t be good for other students,” Nellum said. “The research actually suggests otherwise, that if you do well by Black students, more students will also benefit.”

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