Immediately after launching her tenure as Seattle Public Schools superintendent, Denise Juneau was faced with a troubling statistic: Only about about 30% of the district's African American 3rd-grade boys were meeting the state reading standard.
Knowing that figure had to change, she and her team set off on a “listening and learning tour” with the intention of finding a solution.
The group focused on attending community centers and meeting places where families of color congregated. They went into their worlds, rather than asking them to come to the district, said Sherri Kokx, senior advisor to the superintendent.
What they heard was disheartening.
“The families told us about their experiences of frustration, anger and sadness,” Kokx said. “It was hard to hear from our underserved families how we’ve let them down.”
Though the 53,876-student district is only about 14% African American, it is known for its racial achievement gap. About half of its African American boys are clustered in 13 schools.
A Stanford analysis found the Seattle achievement gap starts early, with the typical white student scoring 2.2 years above grade level and African American students scoring 1.5 years below grade level. This gives Seattle the ninth-widest achievement gap out of 200 districts measured nationwide. The gap breaks up between the years of 3rd and 8th grades, presumably due to the level of education students receive in the district.
But more needs to be done in the formative years, Kokx said.
“We believe reading is a fundamental civil right,” Kokx said. “Students will be on track for the most part by 8th grade if they can read and write by 3rd grade.”
The district wants to see 70% of those students reading at the state standard level within five years, with a goal of eventually raising that figure to 100%. Its action plan includes the formation of the African American Male Achievement department, lead by Dr. Mia Williams. The new department will ensure African American boys get the educational support they need while focusing on improving 3rd-grade reading proficiency.
This new department — which joins the district’s other African American student initiatives including King Makers, My Brothers Keeper Forum and Rising Sons — will include an AAMA Student Leadership Council.
Kokx said the department, and the change that will come with it, is a work in progress.
“If we knew how to fix it, we would have fixed it,” she said. “But we do have the heart to do this.”
Additional focus on 9th grade
Just as reading by 3rd grade predicts future academic success, statistics show a 9th-grader with good grades will likely graduate high school. With this in mind, the University of Chicago and its To&Though Project developed the Freshman OnTrack program.
“Freshman year is a time of transitions, changing schools, moving into schools with new peers and new adults,” said Alex Seeskin, chief strategy officer at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute and director of the UChicago To&Through Project.
It's also a time when students lose their way, he said.
In 2006, fewer than two out of three students who entered the Chicago Public School system as a freshman graduated from high school. Of those who did graduate, only a third enrolled in a four-year college.
The program works with students from all groups, but it has been particularly effective for black males, whose graduation rates rose from 43% in 2005 to 71% in 2013.
Data shows African American and Latino males are more affected by the 9th-grade transition. The core GPAs of high-achieving black students fall twice as much as those of their white and Asian peers, and PE/health scores fall as much as a full letter grade from 8th to 9th grade.
“Any failure during freshman year is a warning sign that students need more intensive support,” Seeskin said.
The program uses mentoring, either peer-to-peer or adult-to-student, to support and encourage struggling freshmen.
“We know that relationships are positive supports that are essential to the social and emotional welfare of students,” Seeskin said. “Students need places to go to talk about challenges and make sense of what is happening in their world. They begin to make sense of who they are through those relationships. Reflection is really important, and we gear that reflection into action.”
Teachers of color inspire black students
A John Hopkins study found one black teacher in elementary school makes African American students more likely to graduate and significantly more likely to enroll in college. Yet, only 2% of the nation’s teachers are black men.
Quan Neloms is on a mission to change that. Last July, he launched In Demand, a Detroit initiative that uses hip hop, rap and beatboxing to get more men of color into education as teachers, mentors and volunteers.
“Volunteering is a great segue into education,” said Neloms, a teacher in Detroit Public Schools. “That’s the way it started for me. I started off as a volunteer and I was so enamored and impressed that I switched my major from engineering to education.”
"Everyone has something that they can do," Neloms said. “The goal is to develop a database where any school that needs black men can go and recruit them.”
Neloms believes getting more black men into the classroom may be just a matter of putting the option out there.
“Growing up I was surrounded by teachers, but no one ever thought of asking me about becoming a teacher,” Neloms said. “It’s about having those initial conversations and having the counselors offer that as a viable career option.”
Help wanted: Teachers of color
Just as African American teachers are a benefit to black students, schools with black principals are 5-7% more likely to hire black teachers.
Brandon Johnson, an African American principal at Lake Ridge High School in Mansfield, Texas, believes it's important for a staff’s ethnicity to reflect that of the student body, be it black, Hispanic, mixed or otherwise.
“However, I want quality teachers,” he said. “I just can’t put myself in a position to hire off certain criteria.”
To hedge its bets in favor of finding high-quality black teacher candidates, Johnson’s district recruits out of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. Yet despite the district’s efforts, Johnson still needs to add about 20% more educators of color to truly reflect the diversity of the student body.
Not only do teachers of color serve as role models for ethnically similar students, they also create cultural awareness.
“The more representation we have, the more we can build-in that cultural awareness component,” he said. “From hijabs, to do-rags to hoods and techniques that African Americans use to smooth their hair. If we don’t have awareness among our staff, there will be an implicit bias, and because of that we are often targeting African American students. But if we have representation on the staff, we can talk and eliminate about those biases.”