By Christina Williams-James | Special to the OBSERVER

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OPINION – Black History Month allows us, as a country, to reflect on the history and legacy of African Americans’ experience. While this rightly means celebrating a proud history, it also means confronting a legacy of racism that continues in our institutions and systems to this day. Surely, this should always be on our minds – not just each February. But we can still use this month to talk about where we are, what’s working, and what still must be done.

Our ongoing reckoning with systemic racism is evident in the white-Black “opportunity gap,” which refers to the significant and persistent disparity in Black students’ educational achievements (test scores, grades, graduating high school, attending college) as compared to those of white students.

Among U.S. eighth-graders in 2019, for example, only 13% of Black students scored at or above a proficient level in mathematics, compared with 43% of white students. Similarly, only 15% of Black students scored at or above a proficient level in reading, compared with 41% of white students. This “gap” – according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a.k.a. “The Nation’s Report Card,” which since 1969 has tracked student achievement across the country – has narrowed substantially since the 1970s, though recent progress is minimal and the disparity remains very large.

This nationwide issue can be seen in our own backyard. When looking at recently released data for the high school Class of 2020 in California, college-going rates demonstrate the net result of the impact the opportunity gap has on students’ college enrollment options. The results for racial and ethnic subgroups show Asian (82%), Filipino (77%) and white (64%) students all have significantly higher college-going rates than Black (53%), Hispanic (54%) and Indigenous (52%) students.

In Sacramento, St. HOPE Public Schools, a high-caliber, college-prep public charter school system in Oak Park, is focused on closing this gap. I am proud to lead one of the St. HOPE schools and we’re delivering great results.

Our two schools – PS7, which serves grades TK-8, and Sac High, which I lead – provide a seamless TK-12 education for students who’ve been traditionally underserved. Eighty-one percent of PS7’s students and 71% of Sac High’s are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged. Fifty-six percent of PS7’s student body is African American, as is 60% of Sac High’s.

What separates us is our approach, rooted in student excellence and college readiness, which provides our scholars with the strongest possible foundation for learning and career success. To do this, we create classrooms and learning environments based on strict accountability, rigorous standards, high expectations, increased learning time, and the active involvement of parents, students, teachers and staff.

This formula works. For example, in 2022, while only 46% of Sacramento County high school seniors graduated A-G eligible (with the minimum requirements for admission to California State University and University of California campuses), 100% of Sac High’s seniors did. Yes, 100%. As a result, 95% of Sac High’s students were accepted into four-year colleges in 2022, including at all nine UC campuses. Data just released on the Sacramento region’s largest high schools shows Sac High with the fourth highest percentage of graduates going to a UC and the second highest percentage of graduates going to a CSU. 

From 2015 to 2020, of all the low-income African American students in Sac County who enrolled at a UC after high school, nearly one in four were Sac High graduates.

Of course, the groundwork for Sac High’s college-prep success is laid in PS7’s elementary and middle schools. There, too, our scholars, including our minority scholars, outperform their district, county and state peers on state standardized tests. More than half (51%) of Hispanic/Latino students at PS7 tested on or above grade level in English language arts in 2021-22 compared to 35% of Hispanic/Latino students in Sacramento County. In math, African American, Hispanic/Latino, English learners and socioeconomically disadvantaged students at PS7 outperform students in Sacramento County and throughout the state.

We’re proud of our scholars’ achievements to date. PS7 and Sac High serve as proof points that all students can succeed when put in a system combining high expectations and support. But our work is far from over, both at St. HOPE and beyond. The above-mentioned statistics from the Nation’s Report Card show how much further we have to go.

We’ll continue to do our part, pushing our scholars to reach their full potential and serving as a model for closing the opportunity gap for Black students. Although our work will continue year-round, Black History Month reminds us to keep pushing for equity and improved educational outcomes for Black students.

Christina Williams-James is the principal at Sacramento Charter High School and a former SCUSD student.