The Riverside and San Bernardino Unified School Districts have worked diligently to close the African American Student Achievement gap in the Inland Empire but the job is unfinished.
Although, some districts have experienced measured success the commitment for substantive and lasting change has remained elusive. Hope for continued improvement lies in the collective determination of administrators, teachers and parents. To this end, both Riverside and San Bernardino counties look to some of the brightest minds in the field of education to help structure and lead the necessary change—both African American, both female.
Dr. Ayanna Balogun is Assistant Principal, professor and researcher for the University of Redlands. In a recent exchange with The Voice Balogun talked about what motivated her to be an educator. “Education changed my circumstances in life and provided a way for me to help my family”, she shared and continued, “I chose to be an educator so that I can offer that same opportunity to other children who grew up in situations like mine.”
Balogun has twenty one years experience in education. She began as an instructional aide in college and spent time as a substitute teacher before assuming her own classroom. She has worked at all levels in the K-12 system.
Dr. April Clay is an education consultant and researcher currently working on a research project with a team based at California State University of San Bernardino (CSUSB). She is a doctoral level educator and counselor with a background in K-12 teaching, academic school counseling and mental health counseling. She has a doctorate in education with an emphasis on educational justice.
During an exclusive exchange with The Voice, Clay admitted she is really a researcher and advocate at her core; however, her professional experience and personal strengths fostered an easy connection with adolescents and as a result she works closely with them as they find their way through social, emotional and academic life issues.
There is no doubt both women are uniquely qualified to help the Inland Empire navigate through the quagmire of restraints in order to accelerate progress on the issue of African American student achievement.
Having served on the Fontana Unified School District Board of Education, Balogun gained expanded insight useful in this quest. “Serving as a board member allowed me the opportunity to have a bird’s eye view while being the elephant in the room,” she shared and continued, “Every vote I submitted was through the lens of “how will this directly impact students, parents and teachers?” The experience gifted Balogun with two vantage points. She described it as, “very similar to being a general of a war in addition to being a soldier in the trenches.”
Clay also brings the added advantage of a dual perspective. “As an education consultant I am uniquely positioned to advocate for change by meeting with education leaders, policy makers, students and families to examine all sides of the education experience and give voice to the voiceless, she shared and continued, “As a community partner, I have participated in district Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) meetings to broaden my understanding of the schools plans, intentions, ideas etc. and positively contributed to the conversation.”
LCAP is part of California’s school funding initiative. School districts, county offices of education and charter schools in California are required to develop, adopt and update it annually. It should identify annual goals, specific actions and measure progress for student subgroups across multiple performance indicators, including student academic achievement, school climate, student access to a broad curriculum and parent engagement.
Clay did, however, express some frustration with the LCAP process. “Unfortunately, as I have sat through numerous meetings within San Bernardino County,” she advised, “The current district LCAP plans fail to adequately address the unique needs of African American students.” Clay believes her experience can significantly enhance the process. “This is where my role as a researcher is perfectly situated to give an unadulterated voice to the experiential reality of the students and families served by district plans (LCAPs).
According to Clay, the research she is engaged in is designed to identify the programs, strategies and structures that positively impact Black/African American students and their families. As part of a team, that also includes Dr. Ayanna Balogun, Dr. Angela Louque (lead researcher), and Dr. Wil Greer, they designed a study to allow students and parents an opportunity to define success and best practices.
“We understand that in order to say we know something about African American students or any group we must first listen to them.” According to Clay, as the agencies move into the new era of education and the development and implementation of LCAPs, the field of education needs to understand the student experience as it relates to the eight state priority areas: student achievement, student engagement, school climate, parental involvement, course access, implementation of the Common Core Standards, basic services, and other student outcomes. “Our research seeks to allow students to name their reality as it relates to best practices and the state priorities,” she explained.
Administrators play a key role in efforts to close the African American Achievement gap. According to Balogun, “Leadership is crucial and directly connected to student achievement.” She also believes administrators operate for the success of African American students based on what kind of support or lack of support they receive from their district leadership. “If district leadership forces this issue on the agenda, then administrators are forced to cooperate,“ she observed.
According to Balogun, when this is not the case, administrators have the option of supporting African American students. As an instructional leader of my school, I made it clear that building relationships with our African American students is imperative before we educate them. We all need to do more unapologetically in this area. This includes providing training, modeling and support structures for staff for African American students.
Both women appeared to agree that teachers and parents are getting better at bridging the communication gap for the sake of the students but more can be done. According to Balogun, the platform of the conversation has not been laid about needs and support systems that should be in place in order for relationships between teachers and parents to be rewarding and fulfilling. “Teachers and parents need to take ownership of the holistic development of children,” she advised.
When it comes to the African American students themselves, Balogun expressed her belief that these students know they are struggling academically especially if there are not appropriate structures in place to support them. They are aware of the lack of care demonstrated by teachers , the inequality of resources at their schools and the relentless practice of unfair discipline; however, she does not believe students really understand the magnitude of the gap. “Ultimately, these are children, we can’t expect them to fully know the barriers, they are simply responding to the way the system in place makes them feel, she shared and concluded, “From those feelings, known as microaggressions, they develop their own conclusions, their own narratives.”
Clay’s comments regarding barriers to African American student success were also reflective. She spoke eloquently about how the barriers are not limited to issues of systemic oppression, microaggressions and unwillingness to address the problems of systemic barriers to change. “Schools are said to be a microcosm of society emulating the culture, tone and mood of our nation, including the acts of inclusion, exclusion and oppression,” she determined.
This reality brought her back to the importance of building awareness as a necessary step to change—this theory supports current research on African American student and parent experience in schools.
In the spirit of Candace, the fearless warrior empress of Ethiopia these women have undertaken a daunting but far from impossible challenge. Clay appeared to sum it up when she said, “Despite the challenges that lie ahead, I remain optimistic that the Black community is resilient and we will overcome the barriers we face.”