Listening to Our Young Sisters; The African American Female Achievement Initiative

“We are a movement starting from the self that asks what we can do as individuals to make conditions better for young Black women.”  That is how the African American Female Achievement initiative (AAFAI) was described to me by Sultanah Corbett, one of the founders of Oakland’s effort to better understand and better serve African American females.

An effort that we will be highlighting this year through posts from the young women themselves and those who work with them on this blog.

A Homegrown Program

For over 30 years Ms. Corbett has been working with students using a social justice and equity lens.  Those experiences highlighted the need for something different, particularly as it relates to African American females.  “Black girls were struggling” and seeing some of the specialized programs that were developing for Black boys, “We needed the same for our girls, specialized programs and specific resources” and from there, AAFAI was born.

Not in a downtown office or foundation boardroom, in classrooms, and lived experiences.

Since then, AAFAI joined a national research partnership, took a recent trip to the White House and spurred the development of a dedicated office in OUSD.  But Ms. Corbett’s feet are still firmly on the ground in West Oakland working with young women at her school.  She is also looking to expand the program here, and develop schools in Oakland as models of what can be done for the nation.

The need for AAFAI

AAFAI’s  co- founder Dr. Corigan Malloy described the need and current context,

With over 25 years of teaching experience, and ten of those years dedicated to teaching in OUSD schools, I’ve concluded the educational experience of Black girls in Oakland, while varied, is a common one in that the girls are a population that has been left behind when resources are distributed to improve the academic lot of students.   Being female, black, and poor presents a challenge for “success” in American society, and this mindset is not uncommon in education, and in Oakland, where historically, children of color are underserved.  Black girls are the fastest growing population of incarcerated students; are disciplined more often and more harshly than their White and Asian counterparts; and are expected to sally forth despite their treatment.  Black girls, most recently, have become the national “buzzword,” as myriad factions attempt to finally address their plight, but oftentimes, this new attention remains minimal.  Black girls are under constant pressure, scrutiny, and seen through less than favorable lenses by those assigned to protect, provide for, and teach them.  As such, Black girls continue to strive and excel under circumstances that are challenging and unfair.  Black girls succeed, but their success is often largely due to their will and the strength of their own perseverance, and willingness to overcome the odds.

I covered some of the data in more detail in a previous piece, but the statistical disparities are striking.

Alongside massive disproportionality in suspensions,  African American girls have roughly a double rate of chronic absence at 20%.   And while there are lower reading proficiency rates for Latinas at 3rdgrade, 24% proficiency versus 31% proficiency for African Americans.  When it comes to graduating high school and completing the A-G college entrance requirements 61% of Latinas were eligible for UC and Cal State while only 36% of African American girls were.

Girls that start out ahead, end up way behind, something is happening in schools.

The numbers scream what the students are telling us, schools aren’t working for our African American girls.  This confirms the experiences of Ms. Corbett of 30 plus years working in education.  “This population needs special attention…We need culturally responsive programs to help them develop socially and academically.”

The question is not whether there is a problem, it’s what are we going to do about it.  And why hasn’t more been done already?

What’s Next?

This will be a year of listening and elevating the voices of these young women.  We will be working with AAFAI, students and schools, to tell our young sisters’ stories, conduct action research, and also address decision makers with recommendations.

When I first interviewed Ms. Corbett on her background, she called herself a “citizen researcher.”  That term is resonating right now for me, both because my favorite book last year was “Citizen” by Claudia Rankine, which pondered the “citizenship” of Black folks, and then to hear Obama’s farewell address and his call for all of us to engage as “citizens.”

As President Obama so eloquently stated,

“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.  Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title:  Citizen.”

I hope that many of you will follow our “joyous task” of helping to tell these stories, or if you have stories of your own or your school does, we welcome your participation in our shared role as citizen researchers.

The task is on us to improve this great city of ours, and we have at least one obvious starting point.


What The Atlantic Got Wrong About Charter Schools and “Segregation”

George Joseph’s article, What Betsy DeVos Didn’t Say About School Choice, claims that charter schools “have pushed more low-income, minority students into even more racially segregated schools.”

While there are many problems in Joseph’s article, I’ll just run through some of the top issues.

Black Folks Have Agency

First, Black folks have agency. Black folks choose and support charters—check any credible poll. We are “pushed” to choose sometimes subpar and homogenous charters, because other neighborhood options are worse. Joseph should talk to some of our parents; they could explain “segregation” as we, the victims, use the term.

Most Black folks wouldn’t call Morehouse or Howard segregated. Separation and segregation are different, segregation in this context is aligned with racism and involves the use of power, of excluding us and leaving us with less than a fair share. To say Black families are “pushed” by charters misses the point—they are pushed by a historically racist system that I personally don’t think has really changed its spots. But that’s just me.

So yeah many Black folks choose to attend charters that are mostly Black, might there be a reason for that? Maybe the school is more culturally responsive, maybe it is less racist, maybe it’s in the neighborhood? But let me just give one example that will illustrate many of the problems with the article.

When I moved to Oakland, I helped start an “Afrocentric” school, the West Oakland Community School. I still remember the pillars: leadership development, college preparation and African-American history and culture. The group was centered in West Oakland, a center of the Black community and a place of pride. Many know it as the birthplace of the Black Panthers.

We had a lottery for admission, and unsurprisingly no White kids applied. It was all Black or mixed kids. It catered to Black kids who often felt like outsiders in less “segregated” schools or equally segregated district schools that were less culturally responsive.

Integration Isn’t Magic

No Black person views sitting with a bunch of White kids as a magic potion for college. Many Black parents realize that there are real material benefits to being in schools with more White people. Those schools tend to have more resources and get more attention.

But there is often a cost. Recently, one of the parents who made it into one of Oakland’s more exclusive public schools told me how she overheard another parent telling a staff member that she didn’t want her child in the class with the Black child. The staff member didn’t rebuke the other parent. And her child soldiered on as one of the few Black students. And the mother worries about the subtle or not so subtle messages her child gets. So that’s the burden we often bear.

More African-Americans Support Charters Than Oppose Them

Black folks are smart about our chances, every real poll you see will show more African-Americans support charters than oppose them. We aren’t a bunch of dupes. We see the flaws in all of our choices and do the best we can.

And I bet you dollars to donuts that the richest and Whitest “public” school in almost any city or state is not a charter, at least what I know from California and New York, it’s a neighborhood zoned school with exclusive housing prices, or it’s a gifted and talented program or specialized high school.

Plus there is a whole chicken-and-egg issue with Joseph’s article. In my work assisting school leaders in founding and running charter public schools, most of them target underserved kids and locate the school in the neighborhood, because transportation is difficult. And in New York City charters are actually required to give preference to neighborhood kids. So yes, those schools are for the neighborhood kids and will reflect the almost exclusively Black and Brown neighbors. And even as Oakland or Brooklyn gentrifies, let’s be honest, not too many White kids apply in the lotteries.

Finally, though I could go on, the article acts like segregation started with charters. It started with the traditional public schools, and is perpetuated by a host of rules that the “system” lays down.

While I think the chicken-and-egg issue confounds the research, I would love to see the golden time before charters, when the schools were rapidly desegregating in the 90s and early 2000s, or even a trend of desegregation in localities before charter schools started.

I am an integrationist personally, given an equal playing field. I think we learn the lessons we need best together. And we should write rules that encourage that. But something feels a little off to get lectured by a young journalist about Black parental choices and charters causing segregation.

But hey, maybe I am wrong and Mr. Joseph will send his kid to an Afrocentric school and help us break the chains, rather than lecturing and blaming Black parents for trying to do the best for their kids in a rigged system.

Hard Choices Ahead for Oakland Unified

Recent news of an up to $30 million shortfall in the OUSD budget shadows big changes ahead.  These are critical times for the district and will set its course for years.  So we should all be watching and making our voices heard.

You can see some information about the shortfall and proposed budget priorities on the District’s site, and more details here at the materials for the 1/11/17 Board meeting.  But the short of it is, while revenues have grown significantly (the per pupil spending in 2014 was $5,789 in 2017 it’s pegged at $9,320 which is still very low compared to other states), the District has increased what it spends more quickly than its revenues have grown.

If you were around a couple of decades ago this is sounding like déjà vu all over again.

Higher than expected costs for special education, transportation and food, combined with higher salaries and general investments in schools, pushed up the costs.  Most of the district’s revenues come from the number of students who enroll.  So as numbers decrease so do the revenues,  and OUSD enrollment is over 800 students lower than estimated.

I know more than any civilian should about school funding, retirement cost formulas and charter school enrollment projections in Oakland.  And all of these trends are working against the District’s bottom line.  Retirement costs will spike in the next few years, one time funds from the state will dry up and the State budgets are already getting leaner, and we will have inevitable economic downturns, which will reduce revenues.  And while some charters are inevitably closed for substandard performance, more will open, and existing schools will continue to grow in many cases.

The only factors the district actually control are in cutting costs or in attracting more students either of the roughly 14,000 charter students or almost 16,000 other school aged residents who most likely go to private schools, but don’t show up on the district or charter rosters.

But even with growing enrollment, costs would still outpace revenue at the current pace.

Hard choices ahead

We can’t have it all.  We have limited resources and need to make decisions about where to spend money and correspondingly, where not to.

OUSD commissioned a study on its spending and some of the key findings were;

  • The total per-pupil spend in OUSD is lower than we see in other urban districts nationally. (DUH)
  • Per-pupil funding levels across middle and high schools vary greatly, even after adjusting for differences in student need across schools.
  • OUSD’s per-pupil spend on more Self-Contained/ “Special Day Classrooms” (PEC) is 35% higher than observed elsewhere.
  • The large numbers of under-enrolled schools in OUSD make it difficult to provide students with a complete set of services consistent with the strategic vision and provide teachers with working conditions that foster professional growth and effective practice.
  • Network superintendents supervise a strategically lower number of schools than observed in other districts; their supports are most highly rated by principals,

What to do

We can’t cut instructional or support staff or their salaries.  Oakland has a hard enough time attracting and keeping folks, and we are competing with a host of neighboring districts, so even though that is where most of the money is—we just can’t cut there in any significant way.  And while it might save money in the short term, kids would pay long term.

So the District is proposing cutting central office, consolidating under enrolled schools, and providing more special education services in house.  All of these are areas that seem out of whack with costs in similar districts. They are also proposing  some school smaller site reductions.  But we need to see some more detail and also the capacity to actually deliver on some of these changes.

There are more economic hard times to come in Oakland, and the further we kick the can down the road and defer these strategic decisions, the harder those decisions will become.

Right now we need good data, solid, transparent, analysis, and brave decisions.  Politically it’s always easier to kick the can down the road to the next guy or gal.

This is no time for politics as usual.

Upset Victory- Thrival Academies Survives the White Box of Death-Kids Win

When I met the leaders of Thrival Academies and heard about their plan to send Flatlands kids to Thailand for study abroad, I thought it was a great idea, I also was 90% sure it would never happen.  I figured that this great idea would die a slow death at the District, one more hopeful corpse in the incinerator, and a growing mountain of ash.  Such is the usual tangle with the white box of death.

It was great to meet Thrival students earlier this year, at Frick.  And I feel even better to know that plane tickets are bought, plans are made, and the kids are leaving on Friday.   There are some great testimonies from students in this EdSource article that provides a more in depth view of the program than I am here.  Please take a look.

This is a wonderful opportunity, a transformative one.  So why did it take so long, why don’t our Flatland kids get more of these types of opportunities?

The White Box of Death

In my experience, innovation and creativity are usually discouraged and may be punished in working with the average school district.  And when they see something they don’t completely understand or haven’t done before, “no” is always easier than “let’s figure it out.”

Often it’s not a real “no,” it’s a series of delays or destabilizing decisions, a death by a thousand bureaucratic cuts, or slow suffocation in a waiting room.

Dr. Death in this case is usually the lawyers, or some obscure risk managers.  They hear about kids going to Thailand and have millions of questions, they can question you to death.  And they often do.

And there are risks, there are questions, but kids do this all the time in other schools and other districts—so why can’t our kids?

Bad Math at the White Box

There are legitimate risk and benefit questions in new programs.  I just think that many of the decision makers really don’t understand the benefits or undervalue them.  Many of our children live in very small worlds, I am always surprised how many student have never been to San Francisco when we do field trips there, much less Thailand.

And the world is big.

I have been blessed by travel and living abroad.  And it changes you.  It will change these young people in enormous ways.  But if you don’t really see you in the kids, or those children as your kids, then on the scale of risk versus value, risk wins out.

If you look at it from the kid’s perspective, the value far outweighs risk.  Families have already made that calculation by sending their kids, and I guarantee they are thinking harder about it than anyone at the District.

We need to take some more risks for our students, which means really valuing these experiences for them.  Thrival is a hopeful sign.

Props to the Partners

When something like this happens it’s a team victory.  So to the folks inside OUSD, who fought for this program, thank you.

No, seriously, thank you.  I owe you a beer.  We all do.

I know some of you had to be there slogging it out, and advocating.  These things die on the vine without care, so thank you whoever you are.

And thank you to the founders, I know it has been tough, with a lot of uncertainty, but your grit and perseverance is a model for the kids.

And to the families and kids, thanks for taking a risk and grabbing this opportunity.

And to all the partners, when you look at the list; MetWest, Summit Academy Charter, Rustic Pathways, Big Picture Learning, not to mention the so called philanthropic partners- New schools Venture Fund, Ed78, and the Rogers Foundation.   I guess whether they are philanthropic or philanthrocapitalist mostly depends on if folks agree with their funding choices.  Probably philanthropic in this case.

It’s a pretty amazing list of public, private, non-profit and district partners that made this happen for our kids.   I hope we can keep coming together to make similar things happen for more of them.

The “Privatization” Debate we Need

There’s a “public” school in Oakland that is 5% free and reduced lunch, 2% English language learners, 8% Latino and 8% Black.  In Oakland…  The average housing price in that neighborhood is $1.6 million.  It’s also one of the highest achieving schools.

That’s the” public” school, you buy your way into an exclusive enclave and you get an exclusive school.  That’s the “public” school.

So excuse me when my bullshit meter explodes, as folks want to always jump on the how charters aren’t public schools.  Compared to what?  That’s your “public” school.

Same in NYC with the gifted and talented programs and selective high schools, probably the same everywhere.  The highest performing public schools, look nothing like the district, and seem to be doing nothing to increase equity.  In fact it looks like quite the opposite.

But maybe that’s just me.

So please before you start talking about privatization, when charters come up for renewal or approval take a hard look.  What are the demographics of those schools and how are they doing?  The data is all public and online.  If charters aren’t serving the “public” or serving them well, that’s one thing, but if they are, and the “public” schools aren’t, then what?

Public schools serve the public

There are a host of schools coming up for renewal right now in Oakland, Ascend, Learning Without Limits, Oakland Charter High School, and KIPP Bridge.  The reports are online, all the data is there (or will be).  Someone show me how 5% free and reduced lunch district school is more “public” than any of these schools.

Or if you watched the Board meeting with ARISE charter, Oakland Flatlands kids getting amazing experiences, show me how that’s not a “public” school.

The “publicness” of something isn’t based on whether the District runs the school.  Legally segregated schools were “public.”  So please let’s move beyond this tired rhetoric and look at who schools are serving and how well they are doing.

That seems a much better definition of “public.”

But if someone wants to convince me with some facts that 5% free and reduced lunch district school is more public than 95% free and reduced lunch charter school, I am all ears.  I will even publish it.