Bay Area parents declare state of emergency over district’s failure to educate black children

Parents demand action from Northern California's West Contra Costa Unified School District

Students work on an assignment in a program aimed at improving African-American achievement in West Contra Costa Unified. (THERESA HARRINGTON / EDSOURCE)
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Fed up with a growing achievement gap between African American students and all others in a San Francisco Bay Area school district, a group of parents is declaring an “educational state of emergency” and demanding improvement.

“For years now, this district has not seen or served African American/black kids,” said Golddie Williams, whose daughter attends El Cerrito High in West Contra Costa Unified. “That all changes tonight. There is no more time for consideration. The time is now. It’s time they see us.”

The parents, who are members of the district’s African American Site Advisory Team, presented their demands Wednesday night to a meeting of the district’s school board. The board unanimously approved the resolution presented by the group and agreed to implement all of its recommendations next year, which are expected to cost up to $7 million, by shifting money the district is currently spending on student programs to services that will better serve African-American students.

But Superintendent Matthew Duffy and associate superintendent for business services Tony Wold warned that the Contra Costa County Office of Education may reject the district’s budget with this new commitment, since the district has not yet identified what it would cut to free up the money for the new services. The district is already grappling with the need to close a deficit of up to $48 million next year.

Wold said the county may require the district to increase its projected deficit to nearly $54 million to reflect planned expenditures related to African-American student achievement. But Williams and more than a dozen other supporters of the African-American resolution said they didn’t want to wait two years to see them implemented.

“The district has stated that it’s a priority to address education gaps with African American students,” Williams said. “From a moral standpoint, this is what’s needed. This is a crisis.”

She is co-chair of the group, which demanded that West Contra Costa Unified improve its services for African American students in the district that includes Richmond and surrounding communities.

Data shows the achievement gap between African American students and others is growing in the district, where only about 20 percent of African American students met or exceeded English standards on statewide tests last year and a mere 10 percent met math standards. In contrast, about 61 percent of white students met the English standards and half met the math standards.

In both subject areas, African American student achievement has dropped over the past five years, while white student achievement has improved. In 2015, 21 percent of African American students met or exceeded English standards compared to 57 percent of white students, and 11 percent of African American students met or exceeded the math standards compared to 48 percent of white students.

“If we don’t change the expectations for the students from the teachers, the administrators, the parents — from everyone — nothing’s going to change,” Williams said. “The expectation has to be that this is unacceptable.”

The parents’ group asked the district to allocate $7.2 million to improve services for the district’s 5,000 African American students, including the creation of an office within the district to support the students and their families. The parents also asked that the district invest in small group tutoring and mentoring for African American students, and provide more culturally relevant curriculum, with a greater emphasis on African American history and culture in books and other instructional materials, field trips and assemblies. To do this, they recommended that the district evaluate what’s working and what’s not and eliminate programs or services that are not effective so it can redirect that money into services that would have better results.

The districtwide group’s meetings attract about 40 to 50 people and include representatives from school site African American Parent Committees, said Zelon Harrison, who also co-chairs the advisory team.

Due to fiscal constraints, Duffy and Wold originally presented the idea of waiting until 2022-23 to consider cuts of $7 million in some areas so it could redirect that money to fund the ideas presented by the African American parents. But board members unanimously rejected this idea, saying they wanted to ensure the district followed through on its promises immediately.

The plight of African American students lagging behind their peers statewide is also on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s radar. When he released his proposed 2020-21 budget last week, Newsom emphasized the fact that the achievement gap for African Americans and for students with disabilities is not closing statewide.

“If you overlay socio-economics with race, the scores are deplorable in contrast to what they should be and can be,” he said, contrasting this “bad news” with improvement by some other student groups. “We have to start getting serious, and do something about it.”

The district group’s resolution also called out the need to recruit, support and retain African American teachers. The district’s United Teachers of Richmond union also supported the resolution, along with the Richmond Branch of the NAACP and Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, who represents the Richmond area in the state Legislature.

“Every student has the capacity to thrive, but they can only meet their potential if we provide them the tools and opportunity to do so,” Wicks said in a statement. “It’s long past time we address these systemic opportunity and achievement gaps in West Contra Costa County, and I’m proud to support this resolution to support every child’s ability to learn and achieve.”

According to the state’s current school funding formula, districts receive additional money for students who are low-income, foster youth or English learners. But the state has not set aside any additional money specifically earmarked for African American students. Williams said her group calculated that 13.6 percent of the low-income students and foster youth in the district are African American, so they should benefit from that share of funds that the district receives.

Newsom’s budget proposed additional money for teacher preparation programs, along with about $300 million to support the state’s lowest-achieving schools and districts. West Contra Costa is already working to redesign one such school — Stege Elementary in San Pablo — which includes a high percentage of African American students. The board has also identified this as a budget priority, despite cuts that need to be made elsewhere.

Wold also said that legislation is being proposed that could earmark funding specifically for African-American students. If that legislation passes, he said West Contra Costa could be well-positioned to receive funding to assist in its commitment to provide better services to those students.

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments this year in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the most urgent challenges facing many urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

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