Monday, September 17, 2007

Diversity and Achievement Post-Deseg: pt.1 (The Role of the Schools)

Too often when the discussion of segregation or re-segregation comes up, we focus on whether or not African American children ‘need to be in the company of White children to learn’. Many people believe those who advocate against re-segregation (like myself) have some romantic notion about the power of proximity. That is not what this issue is about. To be clear, Black children can learn in any environment, under any circumstances, in any era. It is not necessary for us to be paired with any other ethnic group for the function of learning to take place.

However, in this current climate of re-segregation we see an alarming pattern. All around the country and even here in Wichita, when desegregation programs end, there are predictable outcomes. First some schools become almost exclusively Black. The experienced teachers in those schools begin to transfer out and they are replaced with newer and more inexperienced teachers. Then the test scores fall even further. Then we go back to square one demanding equity.

For an example, we can look right here in USD259 at Spaght Elementary. Just last year the district held up Spaght, an predominantly Black School as an example of how our children could thrive in a single-race setting. When they released the test scores This year they’d fallen significantly. When asked specifically to explain this drop in test scores, the drop was attributed to turnover... Simply put, they'd lost a number of their experienced teachers who had either retired or were transferred out, and they were replaced with new, inexperienced teachers and para-professionals.

Bear in mind that these weren't the young, bright, caring Black teachers from our romanticized segregated past... These are kids from western Kansas who have little if any experience dealing with our culture or our children. And current patterns and practices tell us that as soon as they’ve got enough time under their belt to transfer out, they’ll likely be replaced with new kids from the class of 2012. And until we get more Black children in that educational pipeline to become teachers, this is a reality we’ll simply have to face.

As our schools become increasingly segregated, we must demand that our children are placed with experienced and competent teachers.

The Education Trust, a DC Think-Tank made of Educators and Policy makers who deal specifically with the subject of achievement and eliminating the gap, has identified 3 key indicators which foretell academic success or failure. These three evidence-based solutions, when addressed aggressively and persistently have been proven across the country to result in significant educational gains for Black children. And they also happen to be three things which the most successful schools share nationwide, regardless of the student demographics. They are:

(1) Teacher QualityIn fact the Ed Trust’s research has shown that if a group of children is placed with 3 inexperienced or ineffectual teachers in a row, by the end of that third year, their level of education attainment doesn’t remain constant but it actually falls!

(2) Challenging Curriculum and Courses - For example, only 32% of African-American students complete advanced math courses in high school, compared with 47% of White students and 69% of Asian students. “Studies have shown that when students are placed in challenging classes in middle and high school, they learn more and fail less often. Even the students who haven’t done well in school in the past do better when they are put in the tougher courses.” – Ed Trust’s Guide for African American Parents

(3) FundingNationally, schools with the most minority students receive, on average, $797 less per student in state and local money than the schools with the fewest. This was partially addressed by Deseg (moving students to the money). But with the confluence of re-seg, the State’s reluctance to adequately fund education, proposed changes to the At-Risk definition, which would allow districts to redistribute Title 1 funds, and a declining tax base, we’ve got to keep on top of this.

A couple years back, we invited Dr. Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, to come and speak to a group of parents and educators here in Wichita. At our forum, Amy Wilkins was asked by a teacher in 259 why she was talking about making changes in the school instead of dealing with the parents. I offer her response here for our consideration as activists.

She said because realistically, as an organization, they can’t fix the inside of people’s homes, but they can fix policy. –
And that’s where I am…

I know that we can come up with a hundred things that we as a community could and probably should do differently. But as an organization, we can’t directly impact people’s home lives, but we must aggressively impact all of the things that we can to effect change. Our goal is to increase the educational outcomes for our children, and there is clear and convincing evidence (from my perspective) that addressing these areas will help bring about the desired effect.

There are schools across the country with predominantly African American enrollments where the students are thriving. Now these aren’t a different stock of Black people. These aren’t clusters of Black people with a different history. These are children who are being educated in environments where focused and deliberate changes were made to counter the negative influences and ensure their success. We can do the same; we can use their strategies, and adopt their models, but first we must demand that our respective districts become intentional about taking some action steps.

Those of you who are local will remember that in 2005 we invited Dr. Marva Collins to come to Wichita and speak. But Dr. Collins did more than “talk” while she was here. The day she arrived, a group of us took her over to TOPS, where she walked to the front of a class, sat down and immediately started working with kids. Within 10 minutes she identified a couple of the kids who were developing attitudes and she talked about how they would have to be addressed to bring those children up to their full potential.

She saw potential disciplinary problems and was able to discern what steps would need to be taken to prevent those children from stunting their own growth. Now, how was she able to do that? …her experience. Experience allowed her to reach beyond the attitudes and teach the children the skills and tools they’d need to succeed.

If children come to school with disciplinary or behavioral problems, do we throw them away and blame the parents, or do we design strategies to break through their issues and equip them with those skills and tools? An inexperienced teacher is not necessarily equipped to do that… It takes time to develop those skills. So those children when taught by a first or second year teacher are disproportionately suspended or expelled. Discipline problems aren’t seen as challenges, they are insurmountable obstacles and those children are removed.

Teacher quality and experience are key. We need to take affirmative steps and hold our districts feet to the fire to ensure that our children are taught by experienced teachers. We also need to take affirmative steps and hold our districts feet to the fire to ensure that our children are exposed to challenging coursework and that teachers and administrators have and communicate high standards and expectations.

So Where to from Here?

First and foremost, get involved with the fight for quality education. We are all busy and we all have our respective issues and organizations to contend with, but the children we lose in the educational system become the people who fill the jails, join the gangs, commit the crimes, and harm the community. So please, host and attend community meetings on education related issues, go to the school board meetings, partner and work with the organizations who champion these issues. This is a fight we can’t afford to lose.

Second, we would ask all of you to examine, adapt, and adopt the four-point plan that we developed to end the achievement gap. The plan contains specific strategies to recruit more Black teachers, increase accountability, rebuild and redesign teacher diversity training programs, increase community dialogue and involvement and a host of other things. This plan was developed through 2 years of monthly meetings between the Wichita Branch NAACP Education committee, the Wichita Alliance of Black School Educators, and even some members of the African American Council of Elders.

Third, I would ask that we as NAACP Branches and/or as concerned community members, hold our respective district’s feet to the fire on the issue of equity, specifically with regard to the availability of experienced teachers. The Superintendent of USD259 has already publicly announced that he will try to end the desegregation plan in 2008. But we need to insist that the administration put forth an actual plan to ensure that our children will have high quality and experienced teachers. We can not allow ourselves to fall for any "We all care about Children", "Trust me, we wouldn't let that happen" type rhetoric. The way to prevent it from happening is to understand the mechanisms that lead to inequities and to develop a concrete plan to address and ensure that all children are taught by highly qualified and experienced teachers.

We should demand that before any changes are made with regard to student assignments, the district should take affirmative steps to make sure that our children aren’t shortchanged. We want our children’s educational outcomes to be a district priority; not an afterthought, so the plan must precede the action. Our children, having the greatest need, should not be given teachers having the least experience and ability.

Fourth, I’d ask that those who are here locally offer vocal and visible support to the new Elementary-IB school that will be built in the Northeast community. This school is a ‘model’ of how we can achieve our goals without busing. The IB program is academically rigorous and it requires the teachers to obtain a special certification (this should guarantee us a certain level of quality). And by placing a top-of-the-line high quality program in our community, we will have direct access to plentiful resources and opportunities. This will be the only Elementary IB program in the State so all eyes will be on us.

We’ve got the opportunity, we’ve have to make the best of it. We will start a generation of children off in Kindergarten in the most academically challenging program the State of Kansas has to offer. It will be in a neighborhood setting in a brand new state-of-the- art facility. There can be no excuses and we can not fail... From day one, we all need to be there.

It also bears mention that this is truly a step in the right direction. Rather than "protecting" our children from failure by lowering academic standards, this school will raise the standards higher. It is not enough to have high expectations for our children, we must also act on those expectations. Wherever we set the bar, our children will rise or fall to meet it, so we must continue to push for policy that reflects our faith in our children's ability...

And lastly, as our local district (USD259), bolstered by the decision of the Supreme Court, continues it's multi-year effort to try and end our deseg program, we will put forth an alternative plan that will allow us to maintain diversity in our schools while meeting the court's strict scrutiny requirements. But no plan will be successful unless and until we deal honestly and unapologetically with the Role of the community and the family. More on this in pt. 2

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