By S. E. Williams, Staff Writer
What is the color of educational success in the Inland Empire? According to historical and sustained achievement gaps experienced by too many of its African American students—it certainly is not black.
Since the legendary Thurgood Marshall’s successful argument before the United States Supreme Court in Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954, African Americans parents have prayed for, hoped for, worked for, and fought for parity in America’s public schools only to be confronted again and again with what, until now, has remained an impenetrable and disappointing reality—an achievement gap that at times has narrowed but never closed.
Year after year despite legislative mandates, new funding schemes and a myriad of programs and proclamations at all levels of government that have included everything from higher standards to increased testing to zero tolerance on a number of issues, African American students remain gathered on the wrong side of the achievement chasm. Sadly, many African American (AA) students in the Inland Empire are not exempted from this predicament.
In 2013, California went back to the drawing board, designed and implemented an alternative approach to the state’s public education policy; a “new yardstick” aimed at structuring, fostering, measuring, promoting and rewarding scholastic success among its disadvantaged students. The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) was designed to give California school districts flexibility in how resources were allocated and significantly enhanced state support for the education of disadvantaged students.
Identified as the most significant change to the California school finance system in a number of decades it requires the state to allocate a greater share of K–12 funding for low-income, English Learner (EL), and foster care students.
According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the LCFF strategy also included the requirement for a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP). LCAP requires school districts to enlist the help of parents and the public in the identification of performance goals; in addition to recommending ways to achieve them. Schools were required to develop, adopt, and annually update a three-year Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), beginning July 1, 2014.
To this end, educators in both Riverside and San Bernardino County School Districts have worked diligently to develop the first of their three-year plans. The most recent performance data specific to African American student achievement in the Inland Empire showed relative improvements—relevant because students improved across the board regardless of race; but, the achievement gap remained at alarming levels of less than satisfactory performance when compared to student achievement among other racial groups.
In 2013-14, African-American students totaled 6.5 percent of the enrolled population in Riverside County but accounted for 18.2 percent of suspensions and 9.14 percent of expulsions. Graduation rates for African American students in Riverside County were 80.2 percent with Hispanics graduating at 82.6 percent and white students at 89.2 percent.
In a report by the Task Force for African American Student Achievement prepared by the San Bernardino Unified School District, African American students within their jurisdiction also experience limited success. Only 67 percent of African American students graduate from high school in four years. School suspension rates are upwards of 57 percent for African American males—a rate that is three times greater than students of other ethnic groups.
In both Riverside and San Bernardino Counties African American student performance gaps are also glaring when considered in light of other indicators as too many also underperform on Math, Algebra and English-Language Arts Proficiency tests.
Sadly, however, many of these students, following national trends, outperform other ethnic groups from a negative perspective in a number of areas that may be even more concerning. They rate highest in the areas of out of school suspensions, expulsions, absenteeism and as fodder used to feed the school to prison pipeline.
Also in alignment with national trends, African American students in the Inland Empire are also disproportionally overrepresented in special education programs when compared to students in other ethnic groups—specifically those that are subjectively identified as disabilities; categories that include such labels as emotional disturbance and intellectual disability.
Both Riverside and San Bernardino County Unified School Districts continue to work with stakeholders, including parents and student groups in a variety of forums to gather input and leverage resources in a collaborative way to support and improve African American student achievement.
One example of the many efforts underway in both jurisdictions includes the implementation of the Positive Behavior Intervention Supports program in San Bernardino County. It is a proactive approach to the reductions of suspensions and expulsions among African American students. The program is aimed at establishing the behavioral supports and social culture needed for all students to achieve social, emotional and academic success. The measures are specifically aimed at many of the challenges that can lead to negative behaviors that result in truancies, suspensions and expulsions.
Riverside County has also taken a proactive and aggressive approach to help mitigate African American student achievement gaps. Some examples of its efforts in this area as documented in the county’s Blueprint for Success include implementation of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports; Restorative Justice Discipline practices; on-going professional development related to cultural responsiveness and unconscious bias; and, the development of African American Parent Advisory Councils at the school and district levels.
Solving the issue of cultural responsiveness and unconscious bias is viewed by many as essential for success in this area particularly as it relates to the subjective identification of students, particularly African American males, perceived to suffer from some form of mental or behavioral disorder.
In light of all the negative stereotype-categorizing of African American students by far too many not only in the public school system but society at large, a new report led by Ashaunta Anderson, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the UC Riverside School of Medicine, may provide parents of African American students with a viable, no-cost way to neutralize and combat against such psychological battery.
The research uncovered a connection between certain approaches to racial socialization in early childhood and parents’ expectations for greater success in school. In the study, parents of children four years old and younger from several ethnic groups used racial socialization to promote school readiness. The report indicated approaches to racial socialization that promoted cultural pride and identity were commonly used for this young age group and have been consistently linked to positive outcomes in prior studies.
According to Anderson, “The sense of pride and identity provided by this approach appears to give children some protection and resilience when they encountered racism from peers and others, which we begin seeing the effects of as early as preschool.”
African American parents wage constant battle in a society too often either overtly or covertly hostile to their children’s very existence. The report concluded with the use of positive racial socialization before toxic experiences have a chance to cause lasting damage, parents may be able to more significantly and directly influence the trajectory of their children’s lives.
In the final analysis, observers believe the long-running dilemma of under-achievement fostered upon African American students in San Bernardino and Riverside County School Districts is merely reflective of the country’s long-running battle with basic issues of equity and opportunity. California’s Local Control Funding Formula strategy with its Local Control Accountability Plan may provide interesting insight to a broader national concern that looms with silent unease on the nation’s race-tinged horizon.
A report, The Flat Earth and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future by Stanford University Professor of Education, Charles E. Ducommun, discussed how, in the world’s new knowledge-based economy of the 21st Century, most industrialized countries are making massive investments in education—that is, most industrialized countries except for the United States of America.
America ranks low in this indicator not because it is unaware of the importance of the issue; but according to Ducommun, “primarily because of the great inequality in educational inputs and outcomes between white students and (non Asian) minority students.” Interestingly, however, it is minorities that comprise the growing share of the public school population.
Even as Americans have continued to implement standards-based reforms, like those here in California with optimistic hopes of greater equity; a number of states, unlike California with its Local Control Funding Formula, have failed to equalize funding or provide access to the key resources needed for learning. Ducommun called this a collision of ‘new standards with old inequities’ that has resulted in less access to education for many students of color rather than more.
In light of this revelation it is possible that California’s new approach to funding public education coupled with the demonstrated commitment to date of both Riverside and San Bernardino County Unified School District leaders, community partners and parents, African American students in Inland Empire schools may be delicately balanced on the precipice of slow but consistent and hopefully sustained improvements conducive to the long-elusive educational parity.
Closing the achievement gap for African American students in the Inland Empire will serve as an important indicator of equity and increased opportunity in the region.