They can memorize the lyrics to hundreds of songs, easily master and create complicated dance routines, and navigate the intricacies of the Internet without blinking an eye.
Yet African American children post scores on the Academic Performance Index (API) behind students who are learning English as a second language. In fact, the California Department of Education just released its 2007 API base scores, growth targets, and school rankings, and state-wide African American students scored lower than all subgroups except disabled students.
The Los Angeles Unified School District scores are only fractionally better. African American youngsters scored above English Language Learners (by only two points) and disabled students here.
What is the problem?
That’s one stark, in-your-face answer, according to Fluke Fluker, who is co-founder with Bill Payton and Andre Chevalier of the Village Nation at LAUSD’s Cleveland High School. As a result of the mentoring and motivational effort, the API test scores of African American students at this San Fernando Valley secondary school have jumped 140 points in the last four years. The program has also become a model people all over the nation are studying.
The organization is also planning its first summer institute July 25-27 to train other administrators and teachers on how to do the same thing at their respective schools.
The Village Nation Summer Institute, called Unlocking the Genius of the African American Student, will show participants how to replicate what has happened at Cleveland. Designed for teams of three to five people, the event will be held at UCLA and includes lodging and food. For information, visit www.thevillagenation.com
“Jack O’Connell alluded to it when he said over the last several years, some of the studies he has seen say it is much more than an issue of poverty; it’s an issue of race. . . We find that many of these students go from one hostile environment to another hostile environment.”
“What that means is that in some of the neighborhoods they come from, the environment is hostile. They then enter into the school system, and there is a different type of hostility, and the coping mechanisms they use to deal with the hostile environment of the street is counter-productive to use in coping with the hostility they find in a learning institution,” explained Fluker.
Lack of understanding is one of the first things the veteran Cleveland High School teacher identifies as a component of a hostile learning environment.
“A lot of teachers, administrators, and counselors do not understand psychologically, emotionally, and even historically what these kids are dealing with on a day-to-day basis. To be an effective communicator you have to know about your audience to bring home the point. I think there is a lot of unknowns and ignorance on behalf of a lot of educators. Add the fact that we (African Americans) do not come together collectively as a village to service the kids, and I don’t just mean educationally. I mean parents, the church organizations that served us so well during the civil rights era, and businesses. All these entities need to be willing to invest in youth.”
Fluker added that the investment must be in time, energy, resources, and money.
“The data is like a bikini,” said Fluker of the API scores. “What it reveals is vital; and what it conceals is instrumental in knowing the truth. What it reveals in terms of test scores in comparison to ESL and other groups is important to know. But what it conceals is who these kids are.”
Noma LeMoine, director of the Los Angeles Unified School District Academic English Mastery Program (AEMP)/Closing the Achievement Gap Branch, takes the explanation even deeper. She identified four groups of students–African American, American Indian, Hawaiian American, and Mexican American–as Standard English Learners and said that because of the unique cultural and linguistic styles these youngsters bring to school, there is a clash of cultures that results in reduced learning opportunities.
Although classified as “English only” learners, these four groups of youth often do not speak or necessarily totally understand the Standard American and academic English taught in the typical American school. Consequently, if no effort is taken to bridge the gap, these students fall behind.
Added to the lack of understanding of how to use the language, LeMoine said often the information taught is not culturally relevant to the students or their lives, which makes it even more difficult for them to grasp or internalize the information.
Another problem that adds to the clash of cultures is the learning styles of students of color, said LeMoine.
“African American students have verbal strength and verbal agility they bring to class that is often treated as a deficit. They like to talk, and teachers are not always sure how to deal with that,” said LeMoine, who noted that in the traditional American classroom pupils are expected to come into class, sit down, and be quiet.
African American children also tend to learn better in groups as opposed to independently, added the LAUSD administrator. In order to optimize the learning for these youngsters, LeMoine said teachers must have the professional training to help them integrate into their classroom methods to capitalize on the differences.
While the Village Nation has been able to increase the test scores of African Americans at Cleveland, a comprehensive high school with more than 4,000 students; a 65 percent Latino student body; and more than 30 different languages spoken in student homes, the organization was not created to focus on improving scores.
“We formed our organization to get kids to make better choices. The by-product of making better choices has been that test scores have gone up,” said Fluker.
Another difference at the village comes because teachers realize and believe they can make a difference, noted Fluker. “. . . That difference comes first in knowing the kids have the sense that we care about them as people. The API thing is totally out of the situation until I get to know you, and come at you with help. The Village Nation has done that without extra people and no extra money.”
Fluker said another key difference in the Village Nation is that they challenge the students through expectations, such as “I expect you to be better behaved.” “We show (them their) roots and their bloodline historically and the greatness that lurks inside. When kids buy into that, they begin to not want to let themselves down as much as they don’t want to let me down.”
Parents can also play a part in closing this achievement gap between African American and other students by exposing their children to a learning environment very early, said LeMoine.
“Take them to the museum or the library. Buy them books, and make books and reading a priority,” said LeMoine. Additionally the LAUSD has parent centers at the AEMP schools that host a variety of workshops to help parents understand how to prepare their children to achieve.
The state also has an entire website devoted to the achievement gap–www.closingtheachievementgap.org.