Nearly 500 people turned out Saturday for a town hall discussion on the status of Black children in California’s public education and system.

The event, sponsored by Congresswoman Karen Bass, D-Calif., was held at Audubon Middle School in the Crenshaw District and drew people ranging from high school students attending local campuses, to former school district superintendents, to educational professionals, to parents to concerned community stakeholders.

The centerpiece of the discussion was a report called “At a Crossroads: A Comprehensive Picture of How African-American Youth Fare in Los Angeles County Schools” (…) released in February by the Ed Trust West, an Oakland-based policy, research and advocacy organization.

The introductory notes of the report say: “Using data from multiple sources, the report finds that academic and socio-emotional outcomes for African American students in L.A. County are poor overall.” However, the report also identifies school districts where African American students are doing better on a range of outcomes, including academic performance, graduation rates, A-G completion rates, suspension rates, special education identification rates, and health and wellness indicators.

Among the findings of the report are:
* One in three African American students in California attend an L.A. County public school.
* Overall the African American student population has declined in the county and in many school districts over the past decade.
* The report finds persistent gaps in math and English language arts at both the elementary and secondary levels.
* The report also finds that high school graduation rates and A-G rates are far too low across the board, particularly for African American males.
* The report also found disproportionately high suspension, expulsion and special education identification rates among African Americans, particularly males.

The Ed Trust report also offered some good news, including the fact that in the ABC Unified School District, 91 percent of African American ninth-graders complete high school in four years.

The community served by ABC Unified School District includes the cities of Artesia, Cerritos, Hawaiian Gardens, as well as portions of Lakewood, Long Beach and Norwalk, and 10 percent of the 21,037 student population is African American.

Additionally, there is significant good news for Black students in the Culver City Unified School District: African American students outperform their peers on a number of academic and socio-emotional outcomes in the Culver City Unified. For example, in 2012, 71 percent of African American students were proficient or advanced in English language arts and 65 percent were proficient in math; less than 7 percent of African American students were suspended, compared with rates of more than 20 percent in other L.A. County school districts.

Culver City Unified has 6,674 students of which 1,330 are African American.

In comparison, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest public school district in the nation and largest in the state, contains 655,716 pupils, 10 percent of which are African American.

In addition to a summary of the report by Ed Trust West Executive Director Arun Ramanathan, each of the panelists at the forum–Pamela Short Powell, president of the California Association of African American Superintendents and Administrators (CAAASA); Dwight Bonds of CAAASA and a special education expert; Robert K. Ross, Ph.D., head of the California Endowment–presented additional statistics.

One stat that drew a collective gasp of incredulousness from the audience was presented by Ross as one of five points that must be addressed in order to reverse the hopelessness young Black people feel.

His third point noted a need to reduce the rate of suspension among the African American student population. To demonstrate the depth of the barrier suspension poses, Ross said that if an African American child is suspended just once in their school career, it reduces the chances of attending college by 40 percent while a second suspension reduces the chances by 70 percent.

In addition to suspensions, Ross said four other factors negatively impact Black children in public schools: the third grade reading level (in urban school districts, 70-90 percent of Black boys are less than proficient in reading); chronic absenteeism (if youngsters miss more than 20 days of each school year, they are headed for trouble); involvement in the juvenile justice system; and involvement in foster care.

The panelists also discussed other negative impacts of school policies and actions on Black children.

These include the overrepresentation of Blacks in the special education population, particularly boys, and the failure of the system to monitor and mainstream them back into the regular classrooms (African Americans represent 16 percent of all students in the state’s public school systems; yet, they are 32 percent of those in special education).

Bonds charged that special education has become a dumping ground for a lot of issues that students face.
While the statistics presented at Saturday’s discussion were often depressing, they were not the only information presented. From Congresswoman Bass to the more than 30 people who stood in line to address the gathering, there were numerous solutions offered.

Dr. Ross noted that the per pupil funding in the state is slotted to change this summer from $6,000 per child to as much as $8,000 to $12,000.

Short-Powell noted that there is a White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans (…) offering funding that can be used to help with issues such as early learning, faith-based educational and after-school programs.

The goal of the town hall, according to Bass’ office, was to look at the most recent data and reconfirm where things stand and then develop some consensus on issues that could be addressed.

The two concerns that struck the congresswoman as those that could most immediately be addressed by her office were the overrepresentation of Black youth in suspensions and special education.

Bass’s goal is to help clear some of the roadblocks education professionals face in these two areas, and to continue the conversation.