OPINION - At Fortune School, we operate four public charter schools in San Bernardino and Sacramento, California designed to close the African American achievement gap. I recently hosted a group of school officials at our campus in San Bernardino. The school is named for Hardy Brown, the publisher of the local black newspaper. While serving an African American student population, Hardy Brown College Prep has earned an 802 on the state academic performance index (API). The state goal for schools is an 800. African American students at Hardy Brown far out-perform their black peers in both the district and the county. They also outperform the average student in the San Bernardino City schools on state assessments. In its fourth year of operation, Hardy Brown College Prep has become a magnet for school district officials who want to know how we are achieving results with African American children, a group that routinely fails in district-run schools. I commend the school district on acknowledging our success, working as good partners and seeking out more information about how to achieve similar results.
So, one of our recent visitors, an earnest African American woman, asked the question that I have heard so many times before from people who want to help black children but somehow feel they’re not allowed. “I notice that you boldly talk about serving African American children as the purpose of your schools,” she said. “How are you able to talk about African American children?” As she asked the question, the rest of our visitors—a mixed group of black and white educators—leaned-in for my response.
This is a question that has been posed to me many times before and it always gets me thinking. What an extraordinary condition in our society that failure among African American children is so widely researched, yet those who are inclined to help feel social pressure against taking action to serve the African American child. It’s as if a subtle message has been communicated that it’s okay to help black children within the context of a larger group, just as long as you don’t try to do anything for them in particular.
Of course in our country we have built a whole gestalt around the education of black children that dictates what we should and should not do. At its core is the government’s reaction to the unresolved, national horror of American slavery and its enduring impact on African Americans. In the 1990s, we experienced a backlash in California against policies to affirmatively help African Americans and other minorities to do better. In 1996, Californians passed proposition 209 a constitutional amendment to end racial preferences in public education.
In the ensuing years, blacks have felt the brunt of that policy—I believe more so than any other group. The reason?—there is no proxy for race that can be used to describe black children so that they can receive the extra support they need in school. We know many black children speak non-standard English, yet they do not qualify for resources directed toward English Language Learners. Black children consistently perform below their white peers regardless of income, yet middle class black children can’t be helped because their family income is too high for resources targeted to the poor. As a result, we see public schools dancing a complicated kabuki to try and get at the problem of sagging black student achievement without actually addressing the problem head-on.
Yet, blackness is its own distinct political, cultural and ethnic identity in American society. We know this to be true because we experience it. We also know by looking at student achievement results that black children are wildly underserved by the public schools and have been for generations. In this context, it becomes increasingly important that we name our children for individualized attention from public institutions that as tax payers, we all support.
At Fortune School, we are able to build alliances with public institutions and elected officials to address the needs of black children because black students are the lowest performing subgroup of students in the regions our charter schools serve. A regional problem requires a regional solution. We have found allies on school boards and in school districts and county offices of education who believe in the idea that the region has a role in ensuring the success of black children. This type of understanding does not have to be controversial. Because of our results, people support the proliferation of schools that serve black children well, addressing the black achievement gap head-on and providing real examples of what all schools can do.
Furthermore, by acknowledging ourselves and expecting others to do the same, I believe we divest ourselves of the invisibility that we sometimes feel as blacks in daily American life. That feeling of personhood that comes from being acknowledged moves us closer to being free—a condition that has such immeasurable value to the African American.
By Margaret Fortune