DA op-ed: Fulfilling the promise of Brown

By: | Issue: April, 2019
April 9, 2019

Long time educator Eugene Butler, Jr., is a retired assistant superintendent (Tucson USD).

As we commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in May, it is important to note that ongoing change is still needed. In today’s shrinking global village, every citizen is important to the whole. Our interdependence is essential to the overall success of the United States and ultimately the rest of the world. Therefore, we must leverage the social capital of all Americans by ensuring a quality and equitable education for every child; while simultaneously stamping out any vestiges of past discriminatory practices.

Disparity in resources

In Fulfilling the promise of Brown: Examining laws and policies for remediation., Philip Daniel and Todd Walker write: “Policymakers, courts and researchers alike have all grappled with the disparity in resources, opportunities, and overall advancement for African-Americans in the educational arena for decades. The remedial roadmap to equality began with the judicial shame of Plessy v. Ferguson, and progressed through several more judicial decisions to its final destination of Brown.”

This landmark decision established that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and therefore unconstitutional. Clearly, African-Americans as well as other people of color have made measurable strides in a relatively short period of time after being denied the appropriate resources to compete on a level playing field for generations. However, disparities in categories ranging from graduation rates to unfairly enforced disciplinary actions reveal that much more work is needed to meet the goals of the aforementioned historical case.

Based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (updated in January 2019), the 2016-2017 school year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR) for public high schools is as follows: the overall graduation rate was 84.6 percent, 91.2 percent for Asian/Pacific Islander, 88.6 percent for Whites, 80 percent for Hispanics, 77.8 percent for African-Americans/Blacks, and 72.4 percent for American Indian/Alaska Natives.

Furthermore, approximately 30 years of data show that students of color have been found to be suspended at rates of two to three times that of other students.

Based on findings of this research, students from African-American families are nearly four times likely in elementary and middle school to be referred to the office for behavior as their White peers.

More importantly, studies that African-American and Latino students are more likely than their white peers to receive expulsion or out of school suspension as consequences for the same or similar problem behavior.

Changing demographics

School leadership for the 21st century requires new knowledge, a comprehensive set of skills, and more diverse dispositions than in previous years. It is apparent that the demographic trends that are taking place in U.S. schools will continue to rise, increasing the nation’s ethnic and racial diversity. It is equally important in 2019 to hire, train and retain highly qualified educators who understand the importance of fostering positive relationships with all students and their families regardless of their ethnicity, race, gender or socioeconomic status.

High expectations for all learners is another factor identified as having an impact on student achievement and increasing the opportunity for African-American students to graduate from high school and potentially matriculate to a college or university.

While the majority of African-American students attend school in urban settings, African-American learners in the suburbs and rural communities appear to experience similar roadblocks as they attempt to achieve positive academic outcomes.

Many of the children who struggle in school are from lower socioeconomic status families and are more likely to attend high-poverty, low-achieving schools compared to their suburban peers. I served as the instructional leader in large school districts at several predominantly African-American and/or majority-minority secondary schools in urban communities. Based on my empirical experiences, the majority of my students were hungry for knowledge. However, a disproportionate percentage of the students of color were performing below grade level in mathematics and reading.

After reviewing many of the students’ history dating back to elementary school in some cases, most of the underachieving and unengaged students were either never really academically challenged, misdiagnosed or were dealing with serious problems at home and many root causes had not been addressed.

Five ways to fulfill the promise of Brown

Obviously, there is not one solution to a problem this vast, especially one that has been allowed to permeate entire school districts.

However, there are some options that will allow educational stakeholders to work diligently towards meeting the needs of as many students as humanly possible:

1. Integrate culturally responsive instruction/pedagogy into the comprehensive curricula
Culturally Responsive Instruction/Pedagogy: Affirms students’ cultures, viewing them as transformative and emancipator strengths (rather than deficits); incorporates students’ cultures in the teaching process, thus empowering them to take ownership of their learning; and leads to increased participation in societal activities. Culturally responsive instruction or pedagogy is one of the main components missing in the curricula and the majority of the literature when addressing student achievement and student engagement in today’s contemporary classroom for minority students.
In a culturally responsive classroom, the climate is safe and teachers establish trusting relationships where students are allowed to challenge the perspectives of others.

2. Hire, train and retain educators who are sensitive to the needs of all learners
Given the crucial issues of disproportionality and the growing diversity of the nation’s K-12 student population, it is imperative that today’s classroom teachers be prepared to critically examine, reflect on and respond to practices for learners with diverse needs and from diverse backgrounds. Teacher preparation programs must also examine how equipped they are in modeling and teaching culturally responsive practices. Districts must also vehemently recruit more minority male teachers.

3. Establish additional Advanced Learning Experience courses in secondary schools and aggressively recruit and retain minority students.
The aforementioned courses (e.g., Advanced Placement, IB, Gifted, Honors and AVID) will assists in narrowing the achievement and access gap between minority students and their white counterparts. Therefore, exposing a larger cohort of students to higher order thinking skills, advanced STEM opportunities and a college preparatory curricula.

4. Increase parental involvement and take advantage of the human capital of minority parents
I remember being sent to a perennially underachieving school with the mission of saving it from being closed down. One of the first things that I discovered was that the school had not had a PTA in 18 years. We started a successful PTSA during my first two weeks with parents that were waiting to withdraw their children from the school due to the previous years’ lack of academic achievement, poor tests scores; and more importantly, the constant fights and acts of violence.

By the end of my first year as the instructional leader there, we had a small, but very strong and engaged PTSA, which was well respected in the community and the district. Furthermore, the tested student cohort outperformed the state and the district on the writing portion of the state assessment test. Moreover, the students improved 40 points in one year on the same assessment test. Attendance improved, fights dramatically decreased, and students began to take pride in their school and won numerous awards and accolades.

In addition to the dedication and hard work by the teachers, staff and students, I attribute much of our success to the high level of involvement by those parents whom I was told “did not care about their kids”. Too often, parents of all races and ethnic groups are fairly engaged at the elementary school level, but involvement starts to dwindle once the students reach middle school. In all honesty, the students need the support and accountability of their parents/guardians even more at the secondary level.

5. Establish a restorative practices protocol to reduce outdoor suspensions for children of color beginning at the elementary school level.
There is a direct correlation between students who are placed on outdoor suspensions or informally asked to remain home for a “cooling off period” to poor academic achievement. It goes without saying that it is difficult to acquire the knowledge if you are not in school.

By no means am I implying that inappropriate behavior should not be swiftly addressed. During my early years as an assistant principal and then as a principal, I was a hammer. I later learned to be a rubber mallet and focused more on reform, and ensuring that the victim was made whole while simultaneously understanding the importance of student self-efficacy.

As I noted earlier, there is at least 30 years of data which show the disparity in the enforcement of code of conduct violations or infractions between minority students and their white peers. Administrators must gain as much institutional knowledge as quickly as they can upon being assigned to a school. This practice will allow them to establish positive relationships with the students, and provide the underpinnings for making sound and informed decisions when it comes to discipline. Restorative practices and restorative justice may also serve as a beneficial alternative which may reform the misconduct of the offender, and also provide some relief to the victim(s).

In a nutshell, to fulfill the promise of Brown educators must always remember they are in loco parentis (i.e., in the place of a parent). I always told my teachers and later my principals and directors to treat all students as if they were their own children. It is pretty difficult not to go above and beyond for your kids.

Long time educator Eugene Butler, Jr., is a retired assistant superintendent (Tucson USD).

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