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Panel talks about education reform in communities of color

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

According to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Black and Hispanic 17-year-olds are achieving math at the level of White 13-year-olds.

This is just one shocking statistic about the achievement gap and overall educational attainment among students of color that was shared at a convening of more than 50 education leaders Wednesday at Community College of Philadelphia.

At the gathering, called The Education Agenda and the Impact on Communities of Color, advocates and reformers talked about strategies for obtaining high academic achievement and for building coalitions for grass roots advocacy that will impact national policy.

In Philadelphia, a report issued by the African American and Latino Male Dropout Taskforce revealed that the four-year graduation rate among African American and Latino males is only 45 and 43 percent, respectively.

But while many of the attendees represented local groups such as the Philadelphia Education Fund, Philadelphia Youth Network, and 100 Black Men of Philadelphia, the conversation was not limited to issues within the School District.

This is a national issue. High proportions of students of color attend high-poverty schools where they are often denied such things as access to effective teachers, counselors, and up-to-date facilities and technology.

“What you’re facing in Philadelphia today is what people all over the country are facing," said Michael Nettles, senior vice president of the Educational Testing Service’s Policy Evaluation and Research Center. "So, my purpose and passion about education every day has to do with reducing gaps in achievement and increasing social mobility for the whole population.”

Nettles delivered the keynote address. Then four panelists offered their perspectives on how school districts and local and national advocacy groups, can mobilize to improve the educational outcomes of African American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American students.

The panel was moderated by Michael T.S. Wotorson, executive director of the Campaign for High School Equity.

The panelists included:

  • Quyen Dihn, education policy advocate for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center;
  • former SRC chair Sandra Dungee Glenn, president of the American Cities Foundation and member of the state Department of Education’s Equity and Excellence Project;
  • Anjali Thakur-Mittal, deputy director of The Leadership Conference Education Fund; and
  • Jacqueline Ayers, legislative director for Health and Education Policy at the National Urban League Policy Institute.

The event was sponsored by the Urban League of Philadelphia, Congreso de Latinos Unidos, State Education Committee of the NAACP, and Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, Inc. Speakers emphasized longstanding issues including fair funding, creating effective teachers and teaching, setting a rigorous curriculum, endorsing out-of-school learning opportunities, and getting control of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Dungee Glenn discussed setting high academic standards through the Common Core State Standards, a state-led effort to establish a shared set of clear educational standards around English Language Arts and Math. More than 40 states, including Pennsylvania, have adopted the standards.

But Nettles also emphasized the need to generate new dollars to support higher education among students of color. He referenced a model in Kalamazoo, Mich. that raised $250 million to the school district in private money for the tuition of every high school graduate who applied and was admitted to a public college and university in the state. He said that Pittsburgh; New Haven, Conn.; and Memphis, Tenn. have similar community endowment models.

Dihn presented interesting data regarding the educational attainment in the Asian community. While many believe that all Asian students far outpace their counterparts, Dihn said that 2010 census data show that Southeast Asian students actually face lower education attainment rates, where 51 percent of Vietnamese, 63.2 percent of Hmong, 65.8 percent of Laotian, and 65.8 percent of Cambodians fail to obtain post-secondary degrees.

Part of the problem is that the K-12 system puts all Asian American students under the “Asian category,” creating a distorted picture of performance and attainment in a community that is comprised of over 40 different ethnicities with over 300 spoken languages, she said.

“In almost all states the second largest limited English proficiency students are almost always the South East Asian community," said Dihn. "We have Southeast Asian American students who have lower educational attainment rates than our East Asian students such as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, and our students typically live in low income urban areas and attend the same high schools as African American and Latino students."

But because all those groups are lumped together, "those needs aren’t really reported out and it leads to lack of resources that get funneled to our communities," she said. Another ramification is the "exclusion from debates about where Asian Americans fit into educational reform.”

Charlene Samuels, parent of a Central graduate and 9th grader at Franklin Learning Center, said setting high standards and funneling more money to schools are important pieces of the discussion. But she added that a first step to true education reform in communities of color is dealing with what she calls “the trauma piece.”

“A lot of our children are born to drug addicted parents, parents who are struggling and trying to find where their next meal is coming from, and children who are in the foster care system, so how can they focus on education if they are dealing with those types of issues?” asked Samuels, coordinator for the Logan Olney EPIC Stakeholder Group for Carson Valley Children’s Aid.

“You can throw money at education reform, but if we don’t deal with the root issue I don’t think we’re going to make it, we’re going to be talking about the same issue 10 years from now, and our kids are going to be in a worse predicament than they are now.”

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