How We Prioritize Achievement and Equity for African American Students in L.A

While we strive to create a more equitable educational system, there are systemic barriers that must be dismantled to ensure the success of our students. We understand that in order for our students to be successful, we need to build programs and platforms that dismantle the systems that perpetuate deficit-based thinking about Black students and affirm their cultural identities and assets. In 2017, we developed an African American Achievement and Equity committee to ensure that all students have the necessary resources to be successful in college, leadership, and life.

Kris Terry, who serves as our African American Achievement and Equity director for our schools in Los Angeles, is tackling disparities and achievement gaps that challenge and adversely impact our students. “African American students are having a different schooling experience than their non-black peers,” Terry said. “We are listening to the voices of our black students, families, and educators to determine what is at the heart of the outcomes and how we address these underlying issues and causes with our students and families.”

Terry coordinates discussions, analyzes data, and equips teachers across our network in collaboration with our African American Achievement and Equity committee. Conversations from this committee have led to the development of key programs that give our African American students a voice, community, and platform across our campuses.

Building Platforms for Teachers and Students

Terry spends much of her time analyzing academic and achievement trends across the nation for African American students, relative to their peers. Researchers have found that African American students across the nation have less representation in advanced placement (AP) courses, fewer opportunities to attend college-ready courses, and fewer in-class resources—among several other socioemotional and socioeconomic roadblocks in education.

From this data, she identifies what obstacles may inhibit African American students from academic success across the country and within our own schools. Over the past three years, Terry and the African American Achievement and Equity committee have cultivated student-based programs that build comfort, connection, and support.

“We are now looking for programs that are showing early successes in terms of helping change outcomes for African American students and families and replicate those across the organization to establish belonging and accelerate achievement,” Terry said.

Across the country, African American students typically attend schools with fewer supports, limited access to counselors and in some cases, no counselor at all. That’s why we’re committed to dismantling the intrinsic obstacles that can challenge our students. For example, our curriculum teams and African American Achievement and Equity committee have developed a multi-year strategic plan to boost the availability of our AP courses for all students. And we have prioritized socioemotional learning and support across our schools. School psychologists are fundamental to the socioemotional well-being of our students. Across our 19 schools in Los Angeles, we have 23 school psychologists that assist our students with developing long-term coping strategies and individualized crisis and behavioral interventions. On average we have 1 school psychologist for every 600 high school students; and 1 per 450 middle school students. In contrast, Los Angeles County's average ratio was 1 school psychologist per 959 students in 2019.

Our schools are also doubling down on programs that prioritize mentoring, voice-building, and community. For example, at Locke College Preparatory Academy all students can attend programs such as See A Man, Be A Man and Princess to Queens to cultivate confidence and cultural wealth. Schools such as Ánimo James B. Taylor Charter Middle School have an Empowered Reading class that is open to all, but geared toward African American literature. Several other schools have Black Student Unions that traditionally meet after school or during lunch schools. Ánimo City of Champions Charter High School, Ánimo Venice Charter High School, Ánimo South Los Angeles Charter High School, and Ánimo Inglewood Charter High School are among the newest schools with leading Black Student Unions and Advisory programs. And, as a network, we are expanding our annual Legacy Conference, where we invite thought-leaders to share innovative techniques and practices to dismantle academic obstacles to success for African American students.

Terry also leads a series of professional development webinars and seminars to help our educators address issues against African American students. This year, lead African American Achievement and Equity teachers participated in Overcoming Racism, a large scale training that helps situate the disparities in outcomes for African American students with historical and sociopolitical contexts. “These training help us normalize an understanding of the backdrop in which we see the disparities for African American students in education, because they’re consistent with disparities we see in other areas of our society, health, and mental well being,” Terry said.

From Models to Action

Krystle Braxton, a sixth-year English Teacher at Ánimo James B. Taylor, leads her school’s Empowered Reading course, in which she helps students find culturally relevant books, while developing their love for reading.

“A lot of our African American students, especially our boys, struggle with focus in empowered reading,” Braxton said. She often partners with her lead African American Achievement and Equity teacher to build lessons and collaborate on new ways to strengthen bonds and trust with her students. “You have to meet students where they are in order to help them move past obstacles.”

LaShawnae Smith, the African American Achievement and Equity lead teacher at Ánimo James B. Taylor, leads the Black Student Union Advisory. Smith uses the daily class time to orient semester goals and monitor their class progress and attendance. Students also have an opportunity to discuss topics and explore lessons relevant to their own communities.

“They should feel special. And there should be a difference between Black Student Unions and other advisories,” Smith said. “Our students work on creating affirmations, building morale, leading, and becoming proud of their culture.”

Ánimo City of Champions also has a Black Student Union that, before the shift to distance learning, met often at lunch. Now they meet after school over Zoom.

Within the bounds of distance learning, Black Student Union students have found new ways to connect with their peers and build community. Ayrica Sawyer, the lead Black Student Union teacher, recalls her students exercising political efficacy during the 2020 election. “Our Black Student Union students published videos to encourage their peers to vote, and they held a virtual forum where they discussed police brutality protests,” Sawyer said. “The students made time to talk about the events, and they talked about their feelings,” she added.

Sawyer, who often collaborates with her African American Achievement and Equity lead teacher at her school, appreciates the presence and feedback of the committee. “The committee helps us think about what we can do for students on our campus,” Sawyer said. “Black Student Union is a great addition to the African American Achievement and Equity Committee, because now we’re focusing on both academics and socioemotional needs of our students.”

Responsive Learning Is Key

Terry is committed to innovating new ways to serve our African American students. Across the network, our schools have invested in making their learning environments more culturally responsive, by providing professional development opportunities and creating spaces where our educators can better understand the importance of knowing what they know about the students who they serve, and what they don’t know and need to learn about them.

“If you really want to serve students, you have to get to know them. You have to talk to them. You have to listen to them,” Terry said. “You have to create space to engage with them and understand the various aspects of their identity. And part of our work is helping teachers build relationships with students, where they can start to understand them personally, and culturally.”

At Green Dot Public Schools, we strive to build and protect the cultural wealth of all of our students. That’s why we have developed a series of programs and workshops to better support our families and students. Even through distance learning, we will continue to find new ways to serve our students, families, and communities.