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A dangerous characterization of black students in San Francisco

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Superintendent Vincent Matthews walks with student Rico Right through the Sunnydale Housing Development to his first day of seventh grade at Visitation Valley Middle School in San Francisco on Aug. 21, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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A recent Cal Matters article on black student achievement in San Francisco does a mediocre job of telling half of the story of the work we have done in the San Francisco Unified School District for the black community. It also makes a damaging statement about an entire population of children by calling them the worst in the state. As black members of the Board of Education, we cannot and will not stand for such a vicious characterization of our children, especially when there are so many inequities that exist in our schools and communities. The persistent disparity in achievement outcomes of our children were some of the primary reasons we decided to get involved at the policy level.

The implications of calling our kids the “worst” in the state is dangerous. It perpetuates an internalized message to our children that is deficit-based; it also tells a false narrative to the larger society that black children are inferior. The tone of the article suggests that achievement is solely limited to testing and that The City’s leaders are ignoring these trends. The fact is — we are changing the narrative of the community we have been entrusted to serve.

Yes, the test scores for many black students are low across the state. That has been the case for generations. There are systemic issues that have always played a role in student achievement: bias in testing, lack of culturally relevant curriculum, inequitable distribution of resources in schools and stress factors from the community creating difficult conditions for learning.

We consider ourselves responsible for the current outcomes for our students. We commend the persistent focus on this issue by our partners at the NAACP and organizations like Coleman Advocates that seek to hold the district accountable. Long after the news cycle ends, we know those partners will continue to work with us to address the issues we have been working on as a community.

Since being elected, our response to these outcomes has been aggressive, research-based and prioritized with the limited funding we have at our disposal. We understand that it hasn’t been enough to create the systemic changes we have been seeking, but we are on a path forward. In the future, we will see to it that we have smaller classroom sizes, more incentives for our educators and additional paraprofessionals in classrooms where more support is needed. Below are some of our strategies that have demonstrated success over the past couple of years:

— Through aggressive recruitment and retention strategies, we have decreased turnover of educators and site leaders in our schools that suffer from the biggest achievement gaps.

— We have been promoting the fact that there are all-black environments where our children can and do excel. That’s why we work closely with Urban Ed Academy, that provides Saturday and summer school programs specific for black and brown boys (and they are building educator housing). That’s why we are working closely with Black to the Future, which offers our students and their families an array of services from mental health support to tutorial and one-on-one support in some of our schools with large black student populations.

— We now have more resources going into our African-American Achievement and Leadership Initiative. (By the way, we are one of the very few school districts that have an intentional focus on ensuring resources go directly toward black student achievement and publicly spell it out.)

— Along with our colleagues, we have made sure that, even through the era of high educator turnover, we instituted strategies that have led to ensuring educators in all but four of our classrooms to start this school year. (There were more than 35 vacancies for the 2016-17 school year.)

At the end of the day, after the initiatives have been announced and funding has been spent, we want the same outcomes our black families want. We want to ensure our students are thriving in literacy and math, that they’re prepared to enter the world as global citizens and have the knowledge of self, which results in them seeing themselves as the kings and queens we know they are. Then, and only then, will we have achieved what we set out to do. That way, even when the next article is published pushing a lie and calling them the worst in the state, our black students will know the truth and persist to take their place as leaders just as their ancestors have done before them.

Stevon Cook and Shamann Walton are commissioners on the San Francisco Board of Education.

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