Dr. Rema Reynolds

The White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for African-Americans offers hope to improving the outcomes of black students. (Google Images)

During his speech at the Democratic National Convention (DNC), President Obama talked passionately about education. He stated, “No parent should have to set aside a college acceptance letter because they don’t have the money.” Each year, the Pew Research Center finds that over 90% of all parents want their children to go to college. They hope the schools their children attend can get them there. For African American kids, that hope is often unrealized.

The White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for African Americans, commissioned in July to improve African American student performance, may restore hope to these families. Upon learning of the initiative, some educators called foul on the play, quickly naming this initiative a political ploy by President Obama to recapture the confidence of black voters. The timing is strategic and considering that the Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics has been in existence since 1990, this is not a groundbreaking, innovative idea, but rather, an overdue focus on black students.

Having said that, change can still happen and hope can still prevail. It is up to educational experts to ensure that policy and protocol are properly structured at the federal level. It falls on practitioners, students, and parents to ensure that fidelity is translated into practice at the state and local levels. It is our collective responsibility to insist on meaningful legislation for black children.

Let me give you some context.

Each year, school leaders make tough spending decisions. Last year in Southern California, one district was embattled over state-allocated Economic Impact Aid (EIA) funds that provide compensatory services to “low-performing students and English Language Learners (ELL)”. EIA funds are implicitly earmarked for students who can offer the biggest bang for the testing score buck. In California, African American students make up roughly 7% of California’s student population and are often outnumbered, meaning that all EIA money typically goes to ELL students.

For example, the African American parent organization I work with tried to convince district personnel that their children needed access to a portion of the funds, pointing to the deplorable outcomes of Black students who perform, in some cases, worse than ELL students. Talk of redistributing funds saw parents of ELL students express their reluctance to share scarce resources. Their students weren’t making satisfactory gains either. Ugliness ensued. Sadly, the battle between black and brown parents reflect the conflict often documented between black and brown kids in California and other parts of the country. Both groups wanted their tax dollars spent on their struggling children.

In the end, the black parent group was unsuccessful. Thanks to the numbers game administrators have to play due to No Child Left Behind, black students were again overlooked. They just don’t have the numbers for equitable spending consideration. This year, like every year prior, all EIA money went to the ELL population.

Diverse parent groups should collectively advocate for all struggling students, not scrap over scraps.

Policymakers sometimes don’t know how their ideals and intentions are interpreted at the local level. Federal legislation has virtually guaranteed that the average Black student is shortchanged. Federal legislation must now reverse these practices and the White House Initiative for Education Excellence for African Americans offers hope.

This initiative can force school districts to unapologetically make different decisions with mandates addressing the following:

1) Social and academic instructional strategies and interventions that target African American students

2) On-going monitoring of African American student progress

3) Cultural competence training to work effectively with African American students and their families

4) Development of school-wide community-creating programs that foster empathy, respect, and teach conflict management skills

5) Intentional outreach plans to involve and educate parents and community members.

The President’s new initiative is not meant to educate African American students to the exclusion of other students, but rather, to ensure that African American students are included in the national and local educational decision-making dialogue as we move forward. While all students could benefit from the suggestions above, we witness African American student populations, especially boys, time and time again, experiencing heartbreaking educational and life outcomes, so this initiative is badly needed.

In his DNC speech, President Obama said that he wanted folks to receive their fair share and to ensure that we leave no one behind. Hopefully, this initiative will make good on these promises.

Dr. Rema Reynolds is an Associate Professor in Azusa Pacific University’s School Counseling and School Psychology Department and teaches Global Leadership classes abroad. Dr. Reynolds works closely with parents for improved student outcomes and has worked as a consultant for a number of school districts across the country.

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