Op-Ed

LAUSD needs to reverse its neglect of black students

In the speculation about whether LAUSD superintendent Michelle King – a product of the district and its first black female chief executive -- will be a gentle consensus builder or a maverick innovator there has been little discussion about the fate of black children in the nation's second largest school district. This is unacceptable. As an advocate and mentor in South Los Angeles' schools, I continually see the impact of the district's gross neglect of black students' academic needs and social capital.

When black students arrive at LAUSD schools they can be confronted with teachers and administrators who view them as ticking time bombs, chronic screw-ups who are intellectually incapable of pursuing a college degree. When they look around their segregated campuses they see more police officers and military recruiters than do their white and Asian peers on the Westside and in the Valley. When they open their textbooks, they don't see their history or culture meaningfully represented.

Granted, the district has addressed some of the disparities black students face. After pressure from community activists, in 2013 LAUSD banned suspensions for willful defiance, discipline that had disproportionately affected black students. In South L.A. schools, a low level offense such as talking back to a teacher was much more likely to result in a suspension or even an arrest than it might at a white school. It's been well documented that "zero tolerance" policies lead to lower achievement for black students and "push out" (students failing to complete school) – factors that contribute to the so-called school to prison pipeline.

By the beginning of the 2013-14 school year (the most recent available data), LAUSD could proudly announce that its disciplinary reforms had decreased suspensions overall by 53% compared to 2011-12. The district also achieved a steep drop in police citations for tardiness, absences and truancy, and an overall increase in its graduation rates. In 2012, 56% of the district's black students graduated; in 2014, 66% did.

Such gains, however, are not the whole picture. Despite the changes in the district's disciplinary policies, black students accounted for more than 30% of those suspended or expelled in 2013-14, even though they made up less than 11% of the district's population.

Similarly, while arrests and police citations decreased, nearly 95% went to students of color and 31% of those went to black students. In South L.A. schools, a culture of criminalization prevails. When students are more accustomed to seeing police than college counselors on their campuses, it sends a message that school is for containment rather than learning.

Even black students' improved graduation rates by no means indicate that the district is meeting their real educational needs.Last year, the school board had to retreat from a mandate that all its graduates, starting with the Class of 2017, earn a C or better in college prepratory classes required by the UC and Cal State systems. By the district's estimate, nearly 75% of the Class of 2017 (then in 10th grade) weren't on track to meet the mandate. In too many cases, the schools hadn't provided the courses or the necessary support.

Black students are deeply affected by the nexus of low college preparedness and low expectations. Time and again, I've heard from even the most high-achieving black students that they're perceived as less academically competent than their Latino and Asian counterparts. Some teachers think nothing of racially segregating students in their classrooms according to ability. Others crack wise about black students being "naturally" more attuned to basketball than science.

Across the district, black students are consistently underrepresented in Honors classes as well as the Advanced Placement classes that give students a competitive advantage in applying to college. Black enrollment in the elite science, technology, engineering and math AP classes is traditionally abysmally low. The conventional wisdom is that merit determines enrollment in these courses. Yet a 2011 analysis of national SAT scores, conducted by the College Board, concluded that 79.7% of black students could have done well in AP classes but were either not programmed into them — due to counselors' perceptions that they couldn't succeed in them— or they weren't available at their schools.

Biases influence not only AP class assignments but who gets designated as gifted. According to the district's data, black and Latino students are the least likely to be labeled as gifted. Black students are underrepresented in the district's gifted programs by 30%, while Asian students are overrepresented by 150%. Given these figures, it's no surprise that South Los Angeles' Board District 1 has the least number of students identified as gifted while the more affluent west San Fernando Valley has double the rate of gifted enrollment.

Of course, the LAUSD is hardly unique among school districts in its negligence toward black students. But because of the demographic shift from majority black to Latino in South Los Angeles schools, the culturally specific needs of black students are especially at risk. Assessing the impact of disproportionate discipline and unequal college access on black students in Los Angeles County, the Oakland-based Education Trust-West concluded in 2013 that if " trends continue only one in twenty African American students will graduate from a four year college or university."

L.A.'s African American youth remain the most incarcerated, least college-ready population in the state. This is a travesty. As Michelle King sets her priorities for LAUSD, she owes it to black children, black parents and everyone who cares about educational justice to move beyond "closing the achievement gap" platitudes.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of the Women's Leadership Project high-school mentoring project and a member of the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a national advocacy organization against school pushout. Her new novel, White Nights, Black Paradise, was published in November.

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