Whose Children Do We Cherish?

Photo by Anne Fishbein

Politics virtually demands doublespeak and euphemizing, and no cause has lately suffered more from the effects of slippery language than the reform of public education. Let’s start there: Public education really means inner-city schools, which in turn really means students who are black, Latino, poor, or some combination thereof. Politicians and many educators who otherwise exalt reform have always been uncomfortable with such damning specifics, but two community groups that have made race the core of their educational concerns took the Los Angeles school-district headquarters by storm last Tuesday, putting everyone there on notice that they intend to force a change not from the political strata down, but from the grassroots up.

The Coalition for Educational Justice and the Summit of African American Leaders on the Crisis in the Education of African American Students (a dense name for an admittedly dense issue) are still only vaguely aware of each other, but showing up en masse on the same day to voice many of the same concerns about race and educational inequities was, to say the least, serendipitous. The CEJ staged a peaceful demonstration with about 250 people in a district courtyard to publicize its opposition to standardized testing, including the Stanford 9 and high school exit exams, because of the disproportionately ill effects the group claims such tests have on students of color. One immediate concern was over the suppression at some campuses of the students’ right to not be tested, which parents can affirm in waivers provided by the district. Alex Caputo-Pearl, who teaches at John Muir Middle School in South-Central, says access to such waivers is questionable; CEJ student leaders reported intimidation from administrators and others at Locke and L.A. high schools when they attempted to pass out fliers informing fellow students of their right to waivers, and about a slew of other anti-racist issues as well. “They were threatened with expulsion, with being kept out of graduation,” says Caputo-Pearl. “The testing issue has also become for us a free-speech issue. How can you build a movement if you can’t talk about it?”

Caputo-Pearl isn’t exaggerating. He studied community organizing extensively at the Labor Community Strategy Center (of Bus Riders Union fame), did graduate work in urban planning at UCLA, and views the coalition as a campaign in the next big political battle people of color and poor folk must wage against an indifferent system — public-education reform. Standardized testing, which raises questions about cultural biases, assumptions about an educational meritocracy, and the fairness of reward money for high-performing schools, seemed a good place to start. “High-stakes testing is horrible, but there are a hundred other horrible things going on,” says Caputo-Pearl. “We want to use testing as a platform to address a whole host of other concerns.” Last week’s demonstration was one in a series of moves carefully mapped out by the coalition, which began in 1999 and counts teachers, students and parents equally among its active membership. Caputo-Pearl says the discontent over the reliance on testing as both an assessment tool and a measure of academic progress with kids who are already failing — and who may not speak competent English — is growing rapidly; he counts a recent anti-testing demonstration in Oakland, and the San Francisco school district’s initial refusal to administer the Stanford 9 back in 1997 and 1998, as evidence. And CEJ has made some headway locally, persuading the powerful but plodding United Teachers Los Angeles to adopt a union policy opposing the high school exit exam, and, in the wake of the demonstration, garnering a meeting with LAUSD’s general counsel about the students’ speech rights and test-waiver access. “It’s the first step in the movement, the retaking of public space,” says Caputo-Pearl. “This fight about speech rights will remake schools into real public space. That’s what it’s all about.”

It’s about that and more for the Summit of African American Leaders on the Crisis in the Education of African American Students. That’s about as self-explanatory as titles come, and about as self-evident as causes get: addressing the reasons why the black-student populace in LAUSD has been at or near the bottom of most statistics on educational achievement for about as long as anybody in the Summit, many of them former district administrators, can remember. “It is time,” says school-board president Genethia Hudley Hayes, “to get our kids out of the basement.” Not long after the CEJ had said its piece on district grounds, inside the building members of the Summit stood before the school board and read the grim evidence on black students that everybody knows but had never quite seen together in one place: Their SAT math scores are the lowest of any ethnic group, as is their passing rate in designated college-prep courses and advanced-placement courses — which is appallingly low, less than half the district average. None of this is news to the Summit, but what is new is the alliance being built from within (the district’s Council of Black Administrators) and without (the Western Regional Council on Educating Black Children), and the array of support being offered by groups ranging from the NAACP to the parent group Advocates for Valley African American Students. Another new twist is that after years of agitating the district and offering blueprints for improving black achievement that have gotten kudos but essentially gone nowhere, members of the Summit say they will now hold the district accountable to them — monthly meetings with district brass will be held to check the status of a district plan of action. “Our mistake in the past was to give the district a model and wait for them to do something with it,” says Owen Knox, a consultant with the Western Regional Council on Educating Black Children. “This time we’re saying, ‘Okay, this is your job, what are you going to do? Why aren’t you angry?’”

Superintendent Roy Romer was sufficiently moved to immediately assign two top deputy superintendents of curriculum and instruction to work with the group. Board member Hayes more than welcomes the challenge. “I spent 15 years myself on the other side of the podium doing exactly those kinds of presentations for black students, so I know the frustration,” says Hayes, who is authoring a resolution on the black-education crisis. “This time around, though, this is my job. There was no point person on this before. For once in our lives, we must focus on the plight of African-American learners, which doesn’t mean we do it to the exclusion of other students. The fundamental question to me is, ‘Whose children do we cherish?’” The answer CEJ, the new black alliance and others are hoping to hear in the very near future is, everybody’s.


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