Principal Charleston Brown oversees dismissal at Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. His black students struggle to pass state tests in reading and math. (Penni Gladstone/CALmatters)
Parents from San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood gathered around school cafeteria tables and listened as administrators delivered a hopeful message: Their children, who all attend Charles R. Drew Preparatory Academy, one of the city’s few schools serving mostly black students, were already on track to do better on next year’s state tests.
But the staff didn’t tell the parents about this year’s results, even though the recent meeting had been billed as a forum to discuss the scores, which the state published online several weeks ago. Those results present a much different picture. Nine out of 10 black students at the school had failed reading and math exams.
“Really? That’s surprising,” said parent Ashley Wysinger, 31, when a reporter shared the results with her afterward.
And Drew isn’t the only place in the city with lackluster scores among black students. Across the district, 19 percent of them passed the state test in reading, compared to 31 percent of black students statewide.
The result: San Francisco, a progressive enclave and beacon for technological innovation, has the worst black student achievement of any county in California.
“We’ve been tilling the field and cultivating the soil, trying to create conditions that will translate into gains on our standardized tests,” Landon Dickey, the district’s special assistant for African-American achievement and leadership, said in an interview. “But those gains haven’t materialized yet.”
The problem in San Francisco may be severe, but it’s not unique. Huge gaps between black kids’ scores and those of their white peers have existed in California for decades. And average reading test scores statewide show the problem persists, even as districts make progress narrowing the achievement gap between Latino and white students.
State education officials say schools must work diligently to close those gaps, but some in San Francisco are taking a more aggressive stance. Next month the local NAACP, some faith leaders and parents plan to call on the district to declare the city's black student achievement problem a state of emergency -- a symbolic effort intended to trigger a more urgent response and infusion of district resources.
“He who’s behind must run faster in order to catch up,” said Rev. Amos C. Brown, president of the NAACP’s San Francisco branch. “We have not done enough running fast on achievement challenges for black kids in the state of California. It’s an abysmal situation.”
San Francisco’s challenges are escalating even as its black population and share of young residents are shrinking. Soaring housing costs have been driving lower- and middle-income families out for decades, and it now has a lower percentage of children than any other major city in America.
Many of the black families who remain are concentrated in public housing in the city’s industrial Bayview and Hunters Point neighborhoods near the toxic naval shipyard whose jobs drew black laborers there around World War II. And their children are concentrated in the flagging neighborhood schools.
Dickey, who is black himself, knows what that’s like. He grew up in San Francisco and graduated from Lowell High School in the city’s Lakeshore neighborhood before attending Harvard Business School and advising the city of Boston on school reform. Now he’s back and his sole purpose is to devise a plan to boost black students’ success.
Deep poverty and the housing instability and emotional trauma that come with it are some of the key factors impacting their performance on state tests, Dickey said. But the problem isn't purely economic. San Francisco's poor white students outperformed their disadvantaged black peers by more than 30 percentage points, the test results show.
Aries Bedgood is a junior at Raoul Wallenberg High School in the city’s Fillmore neighborhood, a diminishing hub for black culture. He cited yet another contributing influence: San Francisco’s under-performing black students sometimes ostracize and try to intimidate high-achievers. “If you try to excel in school, other kids will try to get you to back off and blend in,” said Bedgood, who is on track to graduate and plans to go to college. “The community reinforces that. It’s pretty sad.”
Dickey also pointed to the unusually high rate of turnover among teachers in the district’s Bayview schools, which is twice as high as in other parts of the city, and the schools’ large share of inexperienced first- and second-year teachers.
The kids themselves, he said, are not the problem.
“Our African-American students are talented and capable and extremely intelligent,” Dickey said. “We’re not seeing that reflected in our scores, so we continue to believe that this is a problem with us as adults that we’re working to fix.”
His hiring almost three years ago was the latest in a long line of ambitious plans aimed at solving the city’s black student achievement problem.
First came the 1978 NAACP lawsuit alleging systemic mistreatment of black students, which led a U.S. district judge in 1983 to sign a consent decree ordering the city to desegregate its schools.
Then in 2004, a few years after a group of Chinese-American parents challenged that order and forced the city to abandon it, the district transformed several Bayview schools, including Drew, into so-called dream schools. Modeled after Harlem’s successful Frederick Douglas Academy, the dream schools offered Bayview’s black students a longer school day, rigorous academic standards, foreign language instruction, music, art, sports, tutoring and a focus on college and career preparation.
While those initiatives may have boosted scores and sparked hope at moments over the last few decades, this year’s test results affirm that little of that sporadic success could be sustained. Third graders' improved performance on the math exam and eighth graders scores on the reading test are two bright spots Dickey said he will highlight in a forthcoming report on the district's efforts to close the achievement gap by 2021, a goal set by the school board.
Given how slow progress has been so far and unsure when lasting improvements will come, Dickey said he must pick strategies that won't fade away because of dwindling funding or a change in district leadership. That commitment is especially key given that public school parents make up a smaller share of San Francisco's population than they do in most major cities, minimizing their influence over policymakers.
San Francisco may also get some help from the state.
Next month, California will begin using a public database called the dashboard to identify school districts where certain types of students, such as poor kids or African-American children, are doing poorly on the state test and struggling in other areas, too. Ones with the lowest levels of achievement in multiple categories will receive support, state Board of Education President Michael Kirst said.
“Clearly, there is more work to do,” Kirst said. “We absolutely must continue to address disparities and build on those areas where we are seeing improvement.”
One strategy designed to boost academic achievement across the district and better prepare students to join a modern workforce is a citywide focus on science, technology, engineering and math instruction. Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School anchors that effort in the Bayview.
The gleaming $55 million campus with state-of-the-art laboratories and floor-to-ceiling windows with panoramic city views opened to fanfare in 2015 on the site of Willie Brown College Preparatory Academy, which was under-enrolled, had low test scores and was crumbling before the city tore it down in 2011.
“We are gathered to celebrate the manifestation of a vision,” founding principal Demetrius Hobson said at a ceremony to mark the school’s opening. “A vision that strongly communicates to the children and families of San Francisco that the adults of this city care about their futures.”
But the school’s early years have been rocky.
Hobson resigned one month into that first school year, and the principal who replaced him left in June at the end of the second. Charleston Brown is running the school now and he’s blunt about the challenges his poor, black students face outside the classroom.
Moments before the bell rang one recent afternoon, he pulled a student into his office to discuss a tiff she’d had with a classmate. Fearing that the argument might balloon into a fight among the girls’ relatives on the sidewalk outside the school, he organized an on-the-spot summit in his office to calm everyone’s nerves.
“The events in this community have no choice but to spill over into this school,” said principal Brown, adding that the same was true when he was a black student growing up in South Central Los Angeles.
His San Francisco students’ recent test scores further illustrate the steep road ahead.
Last academic year, at a school named for the city’s first black mayor, only 10 percent of black students passed the state test in reading and 2 percent passed math—an improvement from the prior school year when none of the school’s black students passed the math exam.
Convincing his tween students that he cares about them and persuading their skeptical parents that he has the kids’ best interests at heart will be key to any success he achieves this school year, Brown said.
“We have to change the narrative that says you have to come from an established community to have abundant success,” said Brown, who commutes to work from Fairfield each day on a motorcycle. “We will change that narrative. I can’t accept nothin’ less. That’s why I’m still out here.”
Even as the gulf between California’s black and white students endures, some school districts have managed to chip away at it. Washington Unified in Fresno is one of them. The small district serving about 3,000 mostly poor kids shrunk the gap between its black students and white children across the state by 17 percentage points in reading and 8 percentage points in math.
As in San Francisco’s district, Washington’s black student population has declined in recent years and many of the families who remain are living in deep poverty, with median annual incomes below $30,000.
Superintendent Joey Campbell attributes his district’s success to its focus on what he calls the three Rs— rigor, relevance and relationships. Teachers connecting with their students is step one, he said.
“Once that relationship exists and students buy into the idea that their school work matters, our teachers can raise the rigor,” Campbell said.
Next comes culturally relevant curriculum, which he described as lessons drawn directly from students’ life experiences in and around Fresno. The formula has worked well for students of all backgrounds, but it has been critical to the district’s success with black students.
“We had to earn their trust,” Campbell said.
Asked if anyone from the state or county office of education had approached him about sharing the secrets to his success, Campbell said they had not. That’s partly because Gov. Jerry Brown believes school policy is best made not at the state level but locally, where he contends accountability will be greater.
But at a recent meeting of Fresno County schools chiefs, Campbell said one of his colleagues lamented that California’s many administrators aren’t talking to and learning from one another.
David Plank, who directs a research center at Stanford University called PACE, shares that superintendent’s frustration.
“We ought to be learning from districts that have experienced success,” Plank said. “But the state hasn’t set up a learning system or support system that would help them disseminate lessons from those districts. The state has completely abdicated that responsibility.”
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