The recent tumult within the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) again highlights the frequent struggles and failures of public school districts charged with educating large numbers of Black children. In spite of federal mandates such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the increased presence of charter schools and innovative policies such the Public School Choice Initiative that allows external groups to run district schools, Black children continue to perform at or near the bottom in all of the major educational indicators. A review of the 2009 California Standardized Testing Report (STAR) results substantiates concerns around the lack of intellectual development of our youth and more broadly, the ability of our community to compete in a highly competitive and technically savvy world.
In terms of math, 47% of Black second graders in LAUSD scored at or above a proficient level on the test. That number dropped to a deplorable 18% for Black seventh graders. In terms of English, 44% of Black second graders scored at or above a proficient level. Like math however, these scores declined rapidly to a paltry 25% at the seventh grade. Overall, Black children scored the lowest in both math and English – the two most highly used and necessary skills in the job market. In addition to the poor level of intellectual development our children receives, they are also missing another critical piece of the educational experience – a substantial exposure, understanding and appreciation of their culture and history. As great thinkers like Carter G. Woodson and Elijah Muhammad taught us, education is inherently linked with culture. Therefore, children will either develop pride in themselves and their people or take on an “I AM less than” attitude that makes academic achievement impossible. In districts like LAUSD, Black History and culture is often narrowed to a short lesson on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in February or a hollow conversation about slavery. In short, Black children in LAUSD are being mis-educated and prepared to maintain a condition and lifestyle of dependency, servitude and death.
Thankfully, there are those in our community that refuse to accept LAUSD’s failure of Black students as the only reality. In the past there have been trailblazers like Dr. Anyim Palmer, who founded Marcus Garvey School in 1975 and established a national model for Afrikan-centered education. Today, a new model has emerged in the form of the Culture and Language Academy of Success (CLAS). Founded in 2003 by colleagues Dr. Sharroky Hollie, Janis Bucknor and Anthony Jackson, CLAS is focused on setting a standard of excellence in terms of educating Black children in Los Angeles. Although the school still has room for improvement, nearly half of its students – almost all Black – are proficient or above in math and English, which is much higher than Black children in traditional district schools. Moreover, CLAS utilizes a system called culturally responsive pedagogy, which attempts to attack the cultural isolation many of our children experience by creating a school environment that affirms the history and culture of the students. Every morning before class begins, students gather in a circle to repeat affirmation statements in order to ready themselves for the day’s learning. The ancient Afrikan principles of MA’AT adorn the walls of each classroom – serving as both standards of conduct and reminders of the great history the students have inherited. Armed with a successful system and improving student outcomes, the founders of CLAS recently attempted to spread its influence through assuming responsibility for the struggling Hyde Park Elementary School through the School Choice Initiative process. Rather than provide the school with an opportunity for change, the district retained control of Hyde Park. As education columnist Larry Aubry stated, the School Choice Initiative continued a pattern of ignoring the schooling needs of Black children and parents. This unfortunate scenario underscores the reality that we – as the Black community – must unleash a revolution that extends from the home and lands squarely inside the classrooms in which our children learn. However, we cannot depend on the status quo (i.e. LAUSD) to provide us with support in our efforts to develop Black children who have knowledge of self and skills to conquer the world. For this most holy of revolutions we are going to have to “do for self”. Black educators will need to come together – like the founders of CLAS – and develop school plans based upon our culture, history and expectation of excellence. While taking over district schools or opening charters provide some opportunities, we must develop truly independent structures in order to maximize our efforts. Of course, this would require Black people of all economic classes contribute their money and time to support the growing number of independent schools that will inevitably need to be come. We cannot build a community with flourishing businesses, safe streets and solid infrastructure without people with a strong cultural consciousness and skills that come from good schools.
Lets get to work.