In an attempt to close the widening achievement gap between African American public school students and their respective counterparts, the California State Board of Education voted unanimously last week to create an African American Advisory Committee.
Members of the committee will come from diverse backgrounds and advise the board how best to improve outreach and address public school deficiencies that allow students to fall through the educational cracks.
African American 10th-grade students scored substantially lower than white, Asian and Hispanic students on the California High School Exit Exam, according to a Human Resources Research Organization report released last October.
In 2008, the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program also showed sub-par scoring for African American students, 33 percent of whom scored proficient or above on the English-language arts section, while only 28 percent scored proficient or above in mathematics.
The National Center for Education Statistics estimates only 66.5 percent of California’s African American students graduate high school on time.
Last week SBE member Greg Jones called the statistics “alarming,” and emphasized the importance of closing the achievement gap.
“We need all of our students to be successful,” he said. “If we are not ensuring quality education quality education for all, then we are not doing our job.”
Though it will meet only twice per year, the committee has a great deal of community support and plans to hit the ground running at its first meeting sometime in March, said California Department of Education spokesperson Regina Wilson.
“Consisting of distinguished researchers, educators, parents and community members, the committee will help the board determine how best to use resources, and identify schools that are doing well at educating African American students and replicate it for a broader base [of schools],” said Deborah Keys, a former teacher and principal and current chair of the Education Policy Committee for Voices for African American Students Inc.
Keys was one of many community members who showed support for the creation of the committee on behalf of the non-profit VAAS Inc., which has been adamant in its support for African American students in California.
“Our mission is really to address issues that are hindering the academic progress of African American students,” she said.
VAAS Inc. members argued that equal attention should be given to other student groups who consistently perform below average and already had a committee, such as for English language learners, Keys said.
But closing the achievement gap will be a difficult process, and not just a reallocation of funding for various programs, said Rex Fortune, a retired superintendent and founder of Project Pipeline, an organization that helps educators acquire teaching credentials.
One of the biggest issues is poverty, which often affects students adversely in many ways, including health, housing and the family’s economic ability to provide materials that enable a quality schooling experience, such as computers and access to after-school activities, Fortune said.
Another concern is the extent to which schools recognize the sensitive additional needs of some students, some of which come from single-parent or low-income families, he said.
“We have to try to provide for them an encouraging, inspiring learning experience that may connect to their cultural backgrounds,” Fortune said. “Certainly we must avoid setting up barriers that preclude their cultural experience from being part of the school learning process, and make sure that any policies tend toward sensitive strategies to engage [students‘] home life.”
As a whole, the committee will suggest ways for schools to begin training staff in different ways, assuring structural materials are available, and reaching out to parents to make sure they are engaged, he said.
By looking at schools that have done this effectively and replicating their practices, something Fortune has advocated in his book Leadership on Purpose: Promising Practices for African American and Hispanic Students, hopefully other Californian schools can take advantage of their education techniques, he said.
AARON BRUNER can be reached at email@example.com.