The Continuing Fight for the Soul of the NAACP

The NAACP was born from a marriage of convenience that has never been reconciled. White liberals and Black liberationists, like W.E.B. Du Bois, had very different visions of the role of the organization and its tactics. Those schisms are still playing out today in efforts like the misguided charter school resolution released this week.

But before we get to that, let’s go back to the beginning to analyze that organizational fissure. Let’s follow it through history, and see how it affects us now.

Early Contradictions at the Birth of the NAACP

David Levering Lewis captured the inherent conflict in the founding of the NAACP in the seminal Du Bois biography, “W.E.B. Du Bois, Biography of a Race”:

Since its beginning the year before the Conference on the Status of the Negro, the evolving NAACP had tacked between two divergent conceptions of itself; the first as a primarily white organization dedicated to African American uplift through well financed suasion; the second as an interracial phalanx challenging the mainstream public to accept ever greater civil and social rights for the nation’s historic minority.

There was a constant battle against co-optation in the organization and in watering down its work. Mary Ovington, one of the founders, described how most of the energy in the early discussions went into “trying to keep the conservatives from capturing us and getting money from the radicals to do a minimum of constructive work.”

This is a struggle that has continued through the organization’s existence. Grassroots Black folks often have a very different view of liberation than White sponsors. And it is one that trailed into the civil rights era and even today.

Who Really Drives the Ship?

Brother Malcolm followed this thread of internal contradiction, looking at how the “puppeteer had manipulated” the NAACP, picking fights within the Black community, rather than fighting to abolish larger power structures. (Malcolm drops some truth.)

As I have argued before, the education system has failed to serve Black children across all sectors. Singling out charter schools for derision misses the larger picture. It moves us away from real answers. Also, and importantly—it’s not what Black parents want.

Black families largely support charters and school choice. I challenge anyone to show a credible survey that shows me otherwise. And this not because charters do such a great job across the board. It’s more the devil and the deep blue sea—or the devil you know versus the potential devil you don’t.

The State of Black Education

I don’t see anything for us to be conservative about when it comes to education. The educational outcomes for Black youth teeter between depressing and enraging—again across all sectors. Just take a look at the Black Minds Matter report from the Education Trust–West.

Among racial groups, Black students in California are least likely to:

  • Become proficient readers by third grade;
  • Be placed in Gifted and Talented Education programs;
  • Master the mid-level mathematics skills that position students for success in college-preparatory math courses;
  • Be placed in a full sequence of college-preparatory courses;
  • Complete an Advancement Placement (AP) course;
  • Graduate from high school in four years; and
  • Complete a college degree.

And they are most likely to:

  • Be suspended or expelled;
  • Be taught by ineffective teachers;
  • Be identified for special education; and
  • Take remedial, non-credit bearing coursework in college.

And look at Oakland: A Black youth here has a 23.6 percent chance of even taking the classes to allow them to apply to the University of California and California State University (and that’s actually a huge improvement on the 2.9 percent rate of 2003).

The Contemporary “Crisis”

In the founding of the NAACP, Du Bois wrote the influential newsletter, “The Crisis”—and there were some in the NAACP who wanted him to tone it down, for whom the “thunder and lightning in ‘The Crisis’ seemed dangerously inflammatory,” as the biographer Lewis described the conflict.

Back to that old marriage of convenience and who would get the final say. For that chapter, and Du Bois’ relationship with NAACP, you will have to read the book. But there is a present-day chapter to be written.

We still have a “Crisis.” It’s societal, but it is deeply rooted in education. And looking at the NAACP’s misguided charter school resolution—which defies the will of the vast majority of Black families and overlooks the tragedy befalling the vast majority of Black children who happen to attend the traditional public schools—I can see who is running this marriage right now.

I just hope that the other spouse can find their voice, because our children need them.

A History Lesson for Randi on Black Education in America

America’s system of education was built for racial dominance.  Anyone who actually studies history knows that.  So it was curious to read  the Times article “Teachers Union Chief; School Choice Rooted in Segregation” this week, where AFT president Randi Weingarten singled out “school choice” for its purported racist roots, when a more accurate title really should have read something like “American Society Rooted in Segregation.”

This matters because if we care about dismantling segregation root and branch we need to start at the base and not focus on one small twig.

And while, yes, I agree choice has been used for segregation, so have district boundaries, the state militias, private housing choices, public housing policy, state and local laws, the supreme court, tracking, etc. And lest we forget the segregated schools that we are supposedly desegregating—were segregated by law—those are the traditional public schools, and they are still fighting desegregation, not with pickets and pitchforks, but neighborhood boundaries and admission tests.

So yeah school choice has some roots in segregation, but the American education system is deeply rooted in it. And to focus on one and not the other seems either disingenuous or just naive.

So let’s look at how great things were for Black folks prior to school choice and how well we were served by the “public” education system.

From Wikipedia:

The fears of slave insurrections and the spread of abolitionist materials and ideology led to radical restrictions on gatherings, travel, and—of course—literacy. The ignorance of the slaves was considered necessary to the security of the slaveholders[4] Not only did owners fear the spread of specifically abolitionist materials, they did not want slaves to question their authority; thus, reading and reflection were to be prevented at any cost.

Each state responded differently to the insurrection. While Mississippi already had laws designed to prevent slave literacy, in 1841 the state legislature passed a law that required all free African-Americans to leave the state so that they would not be able to educate or incite the slave population. …While states like South Carolina and Georgia had not developed legislation that prohibited education for slaves, other, more moderate states responded directly to the 1821 revolt. In 1833, Alabama enacted a law that fined anyone who undertook a slave’s education between $250 and $550; the law also prohibited any assembly of African-Americans—slave or free—unless five slave owners were present or an African-American preacher had previously been licensed by an approved denomination.

Even North Carolina, which had previously allowed free African-American children to attend schools alongside whites, eventually responded to fears of insurrection. By 1836, the public education of all African-Americans was strictly prohibited.

These were the laws of the land, public schools were not meant to liberate Blacks, we were deliberately kept ignorant. Some might say we still are.

Formal segregation was the norm in the North and the South in the traditional public schools, and even after Brown v Board of Education and the Supreme Court’s recognition that separate was inherently unequal.  The traditional public schools remained segregated through a thousand clever legal mechanisms.  And traditional public schools are becoming increasingly segregated as we speak, which apparently is not a concern.

From US News:

A new report from the Government Accountability Office shows that from school years 2000-2001 to 2013-2014, the percentage of all K-12 public schools that had high percentages of poor and black or Hispanic students grew from 9 to 16 percent.Moreover, these schools were incredibly racially and economically concentrated: 75 to 100 percent of the students were black or Hispanic and poor.

Segregation is a problem. The use of public resources to privilege the privileged and further disadvantage the disadvantaged is shameful and should be discouraged, in whatever guise it appears. These are not “choice” problems, they are American problems. And racism and segregation are as American as apple pie, and have been around even longer than it.

To address this we don’t need scapegoats, we need honesty—so yeah, choice in some cases has contributed to segregation, but so has everything else in the U.S. education system. And if we are looking for solutions we need to focus on the problems, not scoring political points.


Too Many Schools but not Enough Good Ones, Santa Fe CAN’s Challenge to the Oakland Narrative

What happens when a district has too many schools, and a growing grassroots community wants start a new one.  We are about to find out as the Santa Fe community, after a robust outreach process, is going to push on the District to open a new school, when many feel that schools should be closing.

This will be a test for the new superintendent and the board in how they productively work with community, and it is one we will be watching closely.  Progress can’t stall because of the district’s financial problems, and poorly handled consolidations or closings, don’t really save money, because many of those families leave the district.  Look at what happened with Lazear Elementary, the last time, closings rolled around.

So here you have a set of engaged families that want to work with the District to start/ re-open a neighborhood school, crashing against the District’s own rhetoric of too many schools.

CAN Santa Fe?

Santa Fe Community Association and Neighbors (CAN) is leading the effort to create the new school.  You can see the campaign they ran here, inclusively bringing in community, and really listening.  They conducted a community survey, knocked on doors, held multiple forums and have been at this for over 3 years.  The result has been hundreds of letters of support and signatures and over 1000 community members pledging support.

Megan Low, chair of the Santa Fe Education Committee summarized the situation, “we’ve spent most of our time listening: listening to neighbors’ hopes, fears, frustration, and ideas. If we can build a school that is rooted in all of this community feedback, then we know it will thrive because schools do best when families are stakeholders in the mission.”

And according to the research they did,

A) there were a significant number of children in our neighborhood that could support robust enrollment in a neighborhood school and B) there was general frustration in the lack of school options that were both high-quality and accessible. Current local options are either too hard to get to (across major traffic arterials), or too hard to get into (long enrollment waiting lists).

So, they want a new neighborhood school.  And they want to do it within the district.  Whether the district will make room for that is the question.  And the answer to that question will say a lot about the direction of things to come.

The case for a new school

The Santa Fe neighborhood is described as a “school desert” with dangerous commutes across major roads.   Where there are many school aged children, and many of them do not attend the local schools.  So the neighborhood is seemingly ripe for a school.

As stated in their report,

Due to the lack of viable school options, the Santa Fe area is now largely seen as a school desert. Most families have become resigned to the fact that they have to face an inconvenient route or commute to get their kids to school while some are deciding to move out of the area in pursuit of better options. Our movement and the momentum we’ve built toward restoring a high-quality program at the Santa Fe site is instilling hope of a more sustain- able community in which our children can thrive together.

And Low commented on the deeper divisions caused by the lack of a local option, “the lack of a neighborhood school has fractured our community on many levels. With most families turning to alternative school options throughout Oakland and in nearby cities, kids living on the same block aren’t familiar with each other. When kids aren’t playing together, the community will always struggle to work together.”

The community is mobilized, there is some broad consensus on the model and they are looking for partners to help develop the school.  So what could go wrong?

Asking the Right Questions

The too many schools question may be the wrong one.  It’s really a question about the right fit, programs and quality for the number of schools.  And the reality is that families have choices.  Many families can pay for private schools and many more can apply to charters.  So it’s not a simple question of do we approve more schools, or don’t we.

It’s got to be a deeper discussion around the schools we need- based on quality and demand.  And that can’t be a stagnant notion.  It needs to be responsive to community, demographics, and the students.

If we start there I think we will be all right.  If we start with a cap on new ideas, or an automatic no without really looking at the merits of each of these proposals, I fear the district is going to find itself in an even worse space, alienating families who want to partner with it, and poisoning the well for future efforts.

For more information about Santa Fe Can’s efforts to re-open a neighborhood school,  you can check out their website at  They currently are wrapping up an RFI for school development partners.

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How Volunteers Can Expand Opportunities and Bridge the Digital Divide;

By Natalie Gayinski

As a parent of three children of various age groups I’ve observed elementary school age is crucial for development of self confidence, long term preferences and hobbies. Moreover, with every passing year, starting around age 10, stereotypes start piling up.  Children start forming a definitive perception of what is and what is not possible to achieve, based on self assessment of one’s character and talents and the opportunities they had to develop. Therefore, it is very important for kids to open their mind to endless opportunities while they are still young and to have help in doing that.

Being a longtime software engineer it’s deeply fulfilling to share my passion for coding with children and to see that sparkle in their eyes, watch their confidence and empowerment grow, and also hear from teachers about their excitement and engagement.  But more students need these opportunities.

There has been a big push recently for public schools to introduce computer science to their students as a core curriculum. And, I know from experience that there is a particularly large gap in coding opportunities for elementary school students.  However what legislators and activists don’t always take into account is that many school districts are severely under-staffed, underfunded, and overcrowded.

The teachers are doing an excellent job teaching our kids core curriculum, and also how to be decent human beings. So although it makes sense, extra curriculum in coding classes orcamps aren’t enough to get all public school students comfortable with coding.

And overwhelming the teachers with even more responsibilities also doesn’t seem like the right solution to me. The real solution is for us all to take responsibility for our children’ future. This is what helps achieve, and we look forward to partnering with many other organizations that help our kids achieve their full potential through coding.

PassionForCoding is about volunteer software engineers sharing their passion for coding with public elementary school students in their classroom setting, in the form of 1 hour hands on workshops. Its purpose is to bring Awareness about how Awesome and Accessible coding is across all public schools in United States. The workshop is highly interactive and designed around language the children can relate to.

Running these workshops has been a very rewarding experience for me, and I look forward to growing our volunteer community next school year. Seeing a spark in kids’ eyes when they get to touch a motherboard, or witnessing a 10 year old girl writing “Girls rule the world!” 10,000 times on a web page using JavaScript, or seeing a line of boys and girls alike taking turns writing code, or watching how proud they are to be in charge :-)

One teacher’s thank you note after the workshop still sticks with me:

“Thank you so much for sharing your coding knowledge and skills, the motherboard and Dash! The kids loved programming Dash, of course, and described him as playful, cute and funny, although they still wonder who Dot is ;~). It gave them an inkling of what goes into programming a robot & how fun it can be. The motherboard & brain they found very interesting and the name coding was intriguing. One student described learning about Javascript as “mind-blowing how many things went into programming a computer”.”

The program is currently active in one school district, and we’ll be looking to expand to more districts next school year.  If you would like to learn more about having our volunteers visit your school please reach out to [email protected].


About the Author-

Senior Data Engineer at Sparkcentral, Founder at, I’m a superhuman software engineer, passionate about coding, believing the sky is the limit.  I’m also a very happy and proud Mom of 3 wonderful kids. Two of them are in a northern California public school system. It was not until high school that I came across and fell in love with software programming. I found it to be a natural extension of real life, providing at times more effective tools to solve problems. It also gave me a newfound feeling of confidence, that I would not have otherwise. My goal is to share my passion for coding with as many kids as possible to provide them with the same opportunity I was given as a child.


Redefining the School Bus to Redefine the School; Bringing Mobile Classrooms to Opportunity Youth

What do you do if you have students who can’t safely get to school?  If you are Steve Good and 5 Keys Charter School you bring the school to the students, with a mobile classroom inside a renovated bus.  It’s a thoughtful and much needed innovation and should have us thinking hard, not just about this particular case, but whether in general the brick and mortar school and classroom, are a necessary backdrop to education  or a stale and  outmoded vision of what a school should be.

Charter Innovation at Work

This school was about meeting a need.  Gang territory lines can be strict and unforgiving in some places, making even the trek to school a perilous one.   As an article in EdSurge described it,

Good and his team are trying to solve a new problem: helping high school dropouts get their diplomas in the face of strict gang lines, rundown schools, and spotty internet. Their solution? Drive into high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods and teach students where they’re at—all from the seats of a repurposed bus.

Good explained,

the model provides a safer alternative to what’s out there now. “There’s no more concern than a brick-and-mortar classroom,” he says. “The bus will park at a site students are already comfortable with, where they feel safe. We have cameras, cell phones.” And because the bus moves, students on both sides of the gang line can attend, albeit at different times.

And 5 Keys has been at it for a while and showing outstanding success, again from EdSurge,

Five Key boasts a 15-year track record of helping some of the most in-need students get diplomas and GEDs through their accredited, California-approved curriculum and work development program. Currently, Five Keys serves 5,000 students each day—3,000 of them in the county jails and 2,000 in their community learning centers—99.9 percent of which are high school dropouts. The targeted approach seems to be working; while the state’s recidivism rate is 68 percent, only 28 percent of Five Keys students return to jail.

This is the type of autonomy and responsiveness that charter school originators envisioned.  And the type I hope we see more of, and see districts adopting.  Charters were originally envisioned as serving a research and development purpose for the broader public school system.  This has largely not happened, but I hope that folks will look at this example and think harder about the implications.

Rethinking the school

When you close your eyes and think if a school, you probably picture a building.  But why?  When I talk to young people about their most impactful educational experiences most of them are not in school, they are in internships, real world experiences, sometimes extracurriculars, or with that teacher who makes school not feel like school.

And OUSD’s most demanded high schools, LIFE Academy and MetWest, are those that really focus on externships and learning in the community.  MetWest, who I know better, has kids out in the community 2 days a week.  And again just doing the math, if kids are out 40% of the time, it may call for a totally different type of building, and one that can serve more students than it can hold at one time.

So why not more of this, rethinking using the community as a classroom, or the educational resources coming to kids?

Mobile classrooms could do fun summer work with kids and families in the community.  They could be a partial solution to chronic truancy, or they could bring a mobile maker space or lab space to schools or throughout the community, or so much more.  Our real barrier to growth here is the fixed image of the school in the back of our minds, and the limits of our imagination.

Great to see the autonomy that charters were designed for being leveraged by 5 Keys for some of our most challenged youth.  And love to see a school bus turned into a school, now we need to just rethink the traditional “school” and come up with an improved vehicle for learning.