By Jared D. Childress | Special to the OBSERVER
When Dr. Rex Fortune arrived at the groundbreaking ceremony for Rex Fortune Elementary School on Thursday, April 7, he didn’t expect more than “10 or 15” people to be there.
Instead, Dr. Fortune was greeted by nearly 100 people who came out in 80-degree weather to celebrate the Roseville campus, which is scheduled to open August 2023.
The school is 20 years in the making — Center Joint Unified School District (CJUSD) authorized it in 2002, during the last year of Dr. Fortune’s 15-year tenure as the district’s Superintendent.
The guests, ranging from elementary school students clad in hardhats to the district’s top administrators, enjoyed refreshments while listening to the sounds of Center High School’s jazz band.
CJUSD Superintendent Scott Loehr welcomed Dr. Fortune, who took his front row seat next to his wife Mrs. Margaret S. Fortune, and his second born child, Rex Fortune, III.
“I am personally honored we’re naming this school after Dr. Fortune,” said Loehr, who received his teaching credential from Dr. Fortune’s non-profit Project Pipeline in 1998.
As CJUSD serves both Sacramento and Placer County, Placer County School District educators also turned out.
“His work was all about empowering students to succeed,” said Placer County Superintendent of Schools Gayle Garbolino-Mojica. “Rex Fortune spent more than 50 years advocating for students and working to bridge the achievement gap.”
Since beginning as science teacher in 1964, Dr. Fortune has made great strides to close the achievement gap which continues to see Black students with the lowest graduation rate in California.
The teacher, veteran administrator, author and educational trailblazer went on to serve as Associate Superintendent of Public Instruction for the California Department of Education from 1972-83. Seeing the need for more Black educators, he founded Project Pipeline in 1989 which was later rebranded post 2008 as Fortune School of Education. Fortune School — under the guidance of his daughter, Dr. Margaret Fortune — is a network of tuition-free charter college preparatory schools in Sacramento and San Bernardino serving a significant number of Black students.
Dr. Rex Fortune, now 80, took the podium and gently won over the crowd.
“There are those among you who wonder, who is Rex Fortune? I will not tell the whole story this morning, besides — the meteorologist predicted that temperatures will reach 90 degrees and I’m sure that you wouldn’t like to spend that reality out here with me.”
His easy manner begs a deeper question: how did a southern Black man born January 25, 1942, in North Carolina steeped in the Jim Crow south close the achievement gap in his own life?
The work of bridging the gap began long before Dr. Fortune was born. It goes back to the reconstruction era after The Civil War — his grandmother was born in 1876.
“I’m looking now at a picture of Regina Fortune, she was a teacher in Asheville, North Carolina,” Dr. Fortune said to The OBSERVER over the phone. “A couple of her daughters were teachers and one son — my father — turned out to be a teacher as well.”
His father, Rex Fortune Sr., married a teacher named Ernestine. As the two working parents struggled to find childcare, Ernestine began taking 4-year-old Rex with her to work.
“My mother asked the principal if she could bring me to school, and he agreed. One of her friends who taught grade one said, ‘Why don’t you let Rex come to my class?’ And that’s how I began 1st grade.”
This inconvenience became an educational advantage. Today, pre-kindergarten is regarded as key to closing the achievement gap as Black children are on average more than six months behind in reading and math when entering elementary school. To bridge this gap, all of Fortune School’s elementary campuses include transitional kindergarten.
Dr. Fortune was an A student in school. When asked if he felt underserved by segregated education, he replied, “it was all we knew.”
It was when Dr. Fortune’s father asked him to erase the names of white children from textbooks sent to Black schools when he began to realize segregation was separate and unequal. “Do you think our science books had the same information as the new science books being sent to the white schools?” he reflected.
While in high school, Brown vs. Board of Education ended segregation in public schools, deciding it was unconstitutional. But southern states were slow to integrate. “We just continued to do what we were doing,” explained Dr. Fortune. “There was no hunger among students or staff to mingle with white folks because a lot of those relationships were hostile — in some cases dangerous.”
Dr. Fortune’s fair-skinned mother, however, was selected to teach in a previously white middle school. It was there she saw the beginnings of the racial pay gap which today still sees Blacks earning 30% less than white Americans.
“She was shocked when she saw records that showed most of the Black teachers with master’s degrees were paid less than white teachers who didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree,” Dr. Fortune said. “They always told us we had to be more qualified, but that was a lie.”
Dr. Fortune continued his education, receiving his bachelor’s from North Carolina A&T State University in 1962. His 1962-64 tenure in the army brought him and his wife to California, after which Dr. Fortune earned his doctorate from Stanford University and began his career as a teacher and top administrator at district and state levels.
As CJUSD superintendent, Dr. Fortune — who secured the district $52.9 million in funding — opened two schools during his 1988-2003 tenure. Additionally, he opened an innovative dependent charter school.
“The school provided independent study and homeschooling as an alternative to regular school programming,” said Dr. Fortune. “Shortly after my retirement, leaders replicated the program as an independent charter named Pacific Charter Institute which currently serves nearly 3,000 students.”
Dr. Fortune’s superintendency continued to bear fruit long after he retired from CJUSD. In 2005, CJUSD opened Wilson C. Riles Middle School in honor of Dr. Fortune’s mentor who was the first African American elected as State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Rex Fortune Elementary School will be the fourth CJUSD school that is rooted in the legacy of Dr. Fortune.
Mrs. Fortune, who holds a master’s in education from Sacramento State University, said that “having a brand new school in 2023 is very exciting.” She added that her husband’s legacy “has been to establish top level mathematics and science programs for African Americans starting in elementary school.”
Dr. and Mrs. Fortune raised three college-educated children, Gwendolyn, Rex III, and youngest daughter Dr. Margaret G. Fortune.
The younger Margaret said her father had “high expectations.”
“Growing up, my father would take us to visit different colleges. I remember when he took me to see Harvard; years later when I graduated from there with my doctorate, I stood in front of the John Harvard statue, remembering when I first saw the campus with my father,” she said.
It was a “point of pride” for Dr. Fortune when Margaret stepped up to helm Project Pipeline in 2008. Renaming the organization Fortune School of Education, Margaret expanded the credentialing program to include a charter school system of 10 campuses serving a student population that is 63% Black and 77% economically disadvantaged. In 2019, Fortune scholars surpassed Sacramento County and San Bernardino City Unified School District in math and English Language Arts.
Margaret praised his solution-based approach.
“The thing he has done differently is, rather than just describing the achievement gap, he sought predominantly Black and brown schools that were succeeding,” she said. “He writes about those experiences as a roadmap to close the achievement gap.”
This roadmap is in several books and more than 100 videos Dr. Fortune has published for educators and parents through his company Fortune & Associates, founded in 2003; his latest book, African American History Presentation, was released March 28, 2022.
In addition to this multimedia curriculum, Dr. Fortune discussed what can be done outside the classroom to advance Black education.
“I’d encourage parents to be involved with legislation that affects Black students and low income families. It’s important to know whether the bills enhance or adversely affect education,” he said.
Four CJUSD schools, two different charter school systems, a multimedia curriculum, and countless teachers exist because of Dr. Fortune — so it’s no surprise the groundbreaking for Rex Fortune Elementary drew a crowd.
Amid the pomp and circumstance of esteemed educators, Dr. Fortune quickly engaged the students in attendance. From behind the podium, he praised the young scholars, telling them “don’t be bashful” as they received their applause.
Fifty years into a career crossing district, racial and generational lines, Dr. Fortune continues to make achievement possible for all. He named empowering Black youth as most important.
“What many underestimate, is the impact of Black teachers,” said Dr. Fortune, his voice breaking as he reflected on his own childhood. “They said — while we may not have everything — we could be anything we wanted to be.”
Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.