Why We Need to Talk About the State of Black Education in Oakland

It’s a mistake to say the education system is failing, at least in regards to Black students.  It is not a coincidence that by most measures Black students are being left behind.  And if it were only Oakland that would be one thing, but it is literally the same everywhere 200 million test scores were reviewed, every district surveyed had a Black-White Achievement gap.

If they tell you that schools are the way to equalize opportunity, but you don’t see any equal opportunity anywhere, you gotta start asking some questions.  Black elementary school children in Oakland have a roughly 1 in 6 chance of reading on grade level, charter or district.  And we know the consequences and chances for our kids who can’t read.  Some tinkering around the edges or working a little harder is not going to radically change these numbers.  You could double these numbers and it would be too low, even triple them.

And things are actually getting worse.

The latest statewide testing showed that the achievement gap between White and Black students has gotten bigger.  And when we look at Oakland numbers, while Black reading readiness is ahead of Latinos in kindergarten, by the end of elementary school Black students trail Latinos in reading proficiency.  We are losing ground.

And we are also facing new threats.

Changing demographics mean changing politics

Oakland may have the soul of a chocolate city, but it doesn’t have the population.  Black folks are now the third largest demographic group and in Oakland and if current trends continue, those numbers will continue to dwindle.

Those years when we made up the majority of the school board, or elected successive Black mayors.  They are becoming increasingly unlikely, and as our political clout declines, so too does the focus on the problems of Black children and families and the will to push for solutions, or even see them.

Black families in Oakland are also relatively poorer than they were a decade ago.  The subprime housing crisis disproportionately affected Black families, many of us lost the most common form of wealth—our homes.  And we are worse off now than we were.

So we have less people, less votes, and less money, unless we increase our organizing we are bound to have even less political power.

New Threats in Dangerous Fiscal times

Desperate times often call for desperate measures—or maybe I should say disparate measures.  Because the prime beneficiaries of the current system, those who get free thigh quality public schools in the Hills, and the folks who pay tend to pay the cost are distinct.  Schools will be closed, and we can imagine that they will ALL be in the Flatlands and ALL will be largely low income students of color, and I will bet you dollars to donuts that the most affected group will be Black students

And as staff are let go under the “last hired first fired” standards—who do you this was last hired?   I have already heard from young Black educators about not being invited back—the so called “non-elect letter.”  So who is likely to pay the disproportionate costs there?

So again, I do not have a super power—but I can predict with utmost accuracy that Black staff and Black families will bear a disproportionate burden , in the district righting itself, while the Hills schools will feel nary a thing, unless we organize.

A Perfect Storm

The Oakland we had, and the one we have now, will be a faint reminder unless we act.  Our children will not have the skills to participate in the opportunities here.  They will be priced out, and without the skills, they will struggle, life will be hard.  Harder than it has to be.

That said, we do have strong institutions, smart, committed and dedicated individuals and a rich history to draw on.  And nothing has ever come to us without demand and struggle.  For many of us individually and as a collective, we are defined by struggle.  And there is no reason to imagine why that would change.

To withstand school closings and dislocation, the firing of Black educators, the rising costs, and abysmal educational outcomes, not to mention a system rigged against us, we need to come together, learn together and rethink what we are doing and how we are doing it.

A little more of the same won’t matter, we need revolutionary answers.

The State of Black Education in Oakland

Despite long term systematic failure of Black children, we hear very little about them in the current debate.  They and their parents are sometimes trotted out as props for this one’s or that one’s agenda.  But once the cameras go away, so do their concerns.

There is some powerful work the AAMA (African American Male Achievement) and AAFE African American Female Excellence)—but who do you think will get cut when we “chop from the top?”

I already saw restorative justice coordinators being laid off.  And the planned expansion of these offices seems to be being, ahem, unplanned.

Meanwhile, nobody is addressing or even acknowledging the current pitiful state we are in and how we are moving even further backwards.  Much less presenting a plan to really fix this mess.

That is why we started engaging the community around The State of Black Education in Oakland (SoBEO), our history, current status and the future.  Not as an owner of a process but a convener of community, to look for better answers, through a better dialogue.  This kicked off with Paul Cobb walking us through history, from Selma to the Panthers in Oakland, and highlighting the coalition of 147 organizations they had working for Black children.

Tonight we are talking with the NAACP around an intergenerational dinner table, looking at where we have been, and how we can better come together for change.  This will be part of an ongoing process that will highlight the voices of Black elders, families, youth, educators, and activists, and will result in a set of findings and actionable demands, the Black Paper, alongside an accountability dashboard, to keep our eyes on results for our youth.

We have planned engagements around listening to youth and family voices, celebrating Black educators and supporting the pipeline, as well as diving deep on data and underlying challenges.  We have also had requests to develop engagements around the school to prison pipeline among other areas.  So please join us as a community member or an ally in getting to better answers.

Black children in Oakland need us.

What do you think?

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