EDUCATION TOWN HALLS MODEL FOR BROADER UNITY?
The first of two Town Halls on the "Crisis in Educating Black Students" was held last weekend. The second is on Saturday, June 26th to come up with specific actions for potential solutions identified at the first meeting.
The purpose of the Town Halls is to begin to put sustained pressure on Los Angeles School District's (LAUSD) Superintendent Ramon Cortines and the Board of Education to commit sufficient funds and other resources to improve the quality of education for Black students.
Events leading up to the Town Halls are instructive. On March 10, 2010 the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education announced it was going to conduct a compliance review (civil rights investigation) in LAUSD that focused exclusively on English Language Learners (ELL). Civil rights organizations and other Black leadership, including education groups, parents and elected officials were outraged over OCR's decision to target ELLs and exclude Black students, the district's lowest achievers and most neglected group.
A planning group was formed consisting of heads of the Black Education Task Force, Los Angeles NAACP, Los Angeles Urban League and Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles-later joined by the National Action Network. On March 25, 2010, the group sent a letter to Arne Duncan, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, outlining its displeasure with the department's Office for Civil Rights' failure to target LAUSD's Black students.
The letter called OCR's excluding Black students from the compliance review unconscionable, adding, "It should not be either/or but both...Black students deserve the same special consideration in Los Angeles." "The fact that ELL represents approximately one-third of LAUSD students--and Latinos are approaching 80%--in no way obviates the need to directly and proactively target Black students as well." Although the planning group made several inquiries and spoke with OCR staff, who insisted that Mr. Duncan had in fact received the March 25th letter, there has been no written response from the Secretary. Congresswoman Maxine Waters spoke with Mr. Duncan, expressing her "deep concern" over OCR excluding Black students. There is little doubt that her intervention had a salutary effect on inclusion.
A letter from Russlyn Ali, Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, dated June 10, 2010, thanks the planning group for its letter of March 25th to Secretary Duncan and contains the following: "...The Office for Civil Rights has reviewed LAUSD school level data in great detail and is expanding the current compliance review to include a focus on African American students at racially isolated elementary schools...We will work to ensure that if violations are found in the ongoing compliance review pertaining to English learner students, remedies will address the language needs of struggling African American students."
This is no small victory and local Black leadership will maintain ongoing monitoring and communication with OCR's compliance review team in LAUSD and its national office.
The June 12 Town Hall was well attended and included a summary of the OCR/
Black leadership saga, presentation of empirical data on LAUSD related to Black students, implications of the problem for their matriculating to higher education, and a panel discussion that focused on solutions.
In keynote remarks, Congresswoman Waters cited her conversations with Arne Duncan and stressed the urgency of the crisis and need for broad community follow-up after the Town Halls that place specific demands on LAUSD. She emphasized the community can no longer afford to be silent and that the Town Halls can represent a significant new beginning for sustained action on behalf of Black children.
The collaboration of local civil rights organizations on the Town Halls is especially noteworthy; it's the first time in a long time that all three groups have worked together on a project of such significance that includes a commitment to sustained follow-through. The success of the Town Halls has implications for critically needed broader unity that serves a collective interest. Obviously, the need for effective Black leadership is essential for successful collaboration-internally and with others.
The education Town Halls are themselves embryonic and their success depends on the continuing willingness and ability of those involved to work together, honestly. Explicit buy-in, i.e., agreement on goals and objectives based on mutual self-interest is imperative: No one else can, should, or will provide leadership and direction necessary for Blacks to successfully navigate the daunting challenges today or in the foreseeable future.
I urge readers to spread the word about the second Town Hall on June 26th, 10 A.M., Southside Bethel Baptist Church, 10400 South San Pedro Street, Los Angeles.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail