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Can San Francisco bridge its profound achievement gap for black students?

Can San Francisco bridge its profound achievement gap for black students?

Picture of Lee Romney
Photo via Lee Romney
Community members wait to address the San Francisco Unified School District’s board of education about dismal African-American student test scores. (Photo via Lee Romney)

As a group, African-American public school students across the country face the greatest challenges: the lowest academic test scores, lowest graduation rates, highest suspension rates, highest rates of chronic absenteeism, highest referrals to special education for “emotional disturbance” and so on. San Francisco is no different.

So when dismal statewide standardized test scores were released last fall, the head of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP demanded accountability. “It’s not that the children are failing,” the Rev. Amos Brown told school board trustees to murmurs of approval from the packed meeting hall. “I’m using the plural pronoun ‘we.’ We are failing.”

“Now it’s time,” Brown continued, “for us to declare a state of emergency. If we don’t do that we’re going to be back where we were 40 years ago.”

The numbers are nothing new. Court-ordered desegregation in the 1980s had a measurable impact. But for the past quarter of a century, San Francisco Unified’s black students have trailed the highest performing student group — generally whites or Asians — by large and essentially unchanging margins. That’s despite plenty of initiatives aimed at narrowing the gap, and many notable small-scale successes.

The problem is a national one. But today’s San Francisco is both a microcosm of the challenge and a beacon for potential change.

The number of African-American students in the district has declined from 16 percent a decade ago to just 7 percent last year.  Soaring housing prices have contributed to an out-migration from the city, while other black families have fled conventional public schools for public charters, private schools and even home schooling. That has left district schools with a black student population experiencing increasingly concentrated poverty.

Schools with African-American majorities, predominantly in and around the city’s Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, have an average 83 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, higher than any other ethnic group. (The district average is just over 50 percent.)

And many of those kids are struggling academically: Among the district’s lowest-performing students, 74 percent are African American.

Many of the African-American students who remain in San Francisco’s conventional public schools suffer from community violence and family trauma, as well as from high rates of parental and peer incarceration. Known as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, these realities of youth can have deep and lasting impacts on physical and mental health if not addressed early. And they manifest in the classroom.

Adding to the instability, teacher inexperience and turnover are highest in schools serving the largest number of black students.

District officials have not been blind to the underlying challenges. In fact, the district has been a leader in rolling out trauma-informed services and acknowledging the impact on behavior and learning problems in children who have experienced adverse childhood experiences. It has worked to reduce disproportionate placements of African American students in special education for emotional disturbance, and is targeting children with incarcerated parents for focused services.

Still, the gains have been incredibly difficult to maintain. My series of radio and print pieces for the 2018 National Fellowship will explore the reasons why. The stories will tackle complex policy at the confluence of health and education. But they will be told — and felt — through the voices of students, families, educators and community advocates frustrated by a seemingly endless sensation of déjà vu. And in some cases, I’ll feature those who have upended the narrative with joyful success and determination.

My exploration comes at a time when district and city leadership are committing — once again — to bridging the gaps. But the available resources, and potentially the passion, are greater than at any prior point in San Francisco’s history.

Vincent Matthews, the SFUSD superintendent who took the helm last year, is an African-American man raised in San Francisco. He has laid out a plan to drive more resources to historically underserved schools in neighborhoods with concentrated black student populations, as well as to those with the highest test score gaps. Given San Francisco’s tech riches and relatively small number of African-American students, he told a recent gathering of the city’s My Brother and Sister’s Keeper initiative, “If we can’t fix it, nobody can.”

Meanwhile, the new mayor-elect, London Breed, is an African-American woman who grew up in San Francisco public housing. She, too, has vowed to harness the city’s energy and wealth to address the underlying causes of poor black student outcomes.

Because these issues are not specific to San Francisco, the pieces will help inform policy elsewhere.

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