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Black students in 14 L.A. County school districts face serious equity barriers, study finds

A student stands in a school hallway
Black students in Los Angeles County continue to face a multitude of barriers to equitable education, including concentrated poverty in communities, high suspension rates and housing insecurity, a UCLA report found.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Black students in Los Angeles County continue to face a multitude of barriers to an equitable education, including concentrated poverty, high suspension rates and housing insecurity, a UCLA report released Wednesday found.

Researchers focused on 14 school districts in the county that serve at least 800 Black students to understand how various factors are leaving behind Black children, particularly those considered vulnerable. The report by the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools builds on a previous study that found schools serving Black students lacked critical resources — counselors, nurses, social workers, highly qualified teachers — and students’ home and community environment played a role in their academic success.

Analyzing data collected before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, researchers found that two underlying factors — the concentration of economic inequality for many Black families and fluctuating Black student enrollment in districts that have not historically served them — shaped student experiences. In order to understand the academic hardships Black students face, the report says, educators need also to consider health and environmental factors.

In eight of the 14 school districts examined, Black students were twice as likely to experience homelessness than other racial groups; and in 10 of the 14 school districts, researchers found that 40% of Black students and their families live two times below the federal poverty line.

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The districts studied in the report include: the ABC Unified, Antelope Valley Union High School, Bellflower Unified, Centinela Valley Union High School, Compton Unified, Culver City Unified, Inglewood Unified, Long Beach Unified, Los Angeles Unified, Paramount Unified, Pasadena Unified, Pomona Unified, Torrance Unified and William S. Hart Union High School districts. Together, the districts serve two-thirds of Black students in the county.

It’s likely that the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black Americans, will only make conditions more precarious for students, researchers said. With school districts now flush with federal funding to reopen schools, the report recommends that education policymakers use the moment to invest in the education for Black youth.

“The issues have been going on, historically, for decades,” said Stanley L. Johnson Jr., the lead researcher on the study. “Clearly schools can’t do this alone, but a lot of the schools and the particular surrounding areas don’t have the resources with respect to mental health, social work.”

Most recently, L.A. Unified committed to diverting $25 million in funds from its school police force to support Black students in the district.

In addition, Black students are expected to benefit from two additional efforts. One targets reading at low-achieving elementary schools by providing additional teachers and aides. A second provides additional resources to 16 schools where there are significant numbers of Black students. Principals at these schools will receive additional mentoring and teachers additional training. There will be extra math support for students, and the curriculum and teaching approach will be evaluated for cultural sensitivity and effectiveness. There also will be support groups for parents and added counseling.

Though the county is home to more than 109,000 Black students, Black student enrollment has declined by 42% over the last two decades. Some Black families have relocated around the county, sometimes due to a lack of affordable, adequate housing, Johnson said.

Antelope Valley Union High School District, in Lancaster, has seen an increase in Black student enrollment. While districts like L.A. Unified and Compton have seen a decline over the last two decades, the Antelope Valley district gained more than 2,200 Black students.

But with that increased enrollment, there are concerns about whether school districts have the resources and training to help Black students succeed, Johnson said.

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Black male students in the Antelope Valley high school district are suspended at a rate of 22% — far above the county rate of 7% for Black boys. Black female students in the district are suspended at a rate of 13%, compared with a 4% average for the county. Black foster youths have a suspension rate of 30%, compared with a 2% rate for the county. Pasadena Unified also suspended Black foster youths at a 30% rate.

“If educators are not equipped to be culturally sensitive, by default I think there’s going to be a lot of implicit biases in some of these schools where you don’t have the reflective nature of people who look like you,” Johnson said.

Researchers also identified that in- and out-of-school support for vulnerable Black students — foster youths, those with physical and learning disabilities and those experiencing homelessness — has fallen short in some districts.

Black students with learning disabilities are two to 10 times more likely to be suspended than the overall suspension rate in the county across 13 of the 14 school districts. And researchers identified at least three districts — including Antelope Valley, Compton, and Paramount — where Black students were “significantly” overrepresented as in need of special education services, raising questions about the identification process and the barriers that could be contributing to the high numbers.

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Those barriers could include a lack of healthcare, poor neighborhood conditions and poverty, said Joseph Bishop, director of the Center for the Transformation of Schools.

“We can’t look at these issues in isolation, especially for students with disabilities,” he said.

The report also highlights institutions and organizations that have excelled in helping Black students succeed. Baldwin Hills Elementary School, in L.A. Unified, designed a curriculum that reflects its student body, which is 75% Black. The curriculum aims to affirm the students’ cultural backgrounds and uses a system that rewards students when they exemplify virtues like “order,” “harmony” and “justice.”

The Brotherhood Crusade, a nonprofit in South L.A., has launched several youth programs that offer gang reduction strategies and mentorship and others that teach financial literacy and business.

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D’Artagnan Scorza, the executive director of racial equity for L.A. County’s chief executive office, said the findings align with what the county knows to be true — Black families have long suffered from a one-size-fits-all education funding model, when communities need tailored support.

“It offers us an opportunity to dive in and look at the ways in which some of the local institutions and school districts can respond,” Scorza said, “and how we as a county can respond alongside them.”


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