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Ryan J. Smith: How can California be a beacon on a hill if it’s leaving its students at the base of the mountain?

Ryan J. Smith | April 23, 2018

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‘Tis the season when we read posts and watch online videos of the young men and women who received their college acceptances. While we celebrate these milestones, the number of students of color and low-income students who are admitted to and complete college are still too few. In California, according to the California Competes, only 47 percent of Latino students and only 38 percent of Black college students completed their college degrees.

These stories remind me of my journey to college. I had a brilliant single mother who became the first in her family to graduate college. She had the same dreams for me, but she clearly understood that although talent is equally distributed opportunity is not, especially for young Black men. To support my chances at success, she spent what money she had saved to move to Culver City because she heard that the school district sent young Black men to college.

Her research proved right about Culver City. Early on, the school enrolled me in honors and AP courses. During my first week of high school, a counselor came to our class to discuss our college options. I’ll never forget Ms. Leslie Lockhart, a young Black assistant principal who took particular interest in my future. As I talked about my ambitions, she encouraged me to apply for her alma mater, UCLA. When my mother lost her job, and we eventually took refuge sleeping in my uncle’s living room, Ms. Lockhart kept her door open so I could continue to talk about my plans. When it was time to pay for college applications, I forgot about a deadline for a special UCLA program and the application was due that day. Without hesitation, Ms. Lockhart reached into her pocket and paid for a courier service to get my application to the university.

That fall, I attended UCLA. Sadly, I entered as one of only 27 Black men to get into that university based on academics alone in a freshman class of 4,000 students.

Unfortunately, not all students of color or low-income students receive the same opportunity I did. As recent national test scores show, while California claims to be a progressive beacon on the hill, it’s leaving its Black, Brown, and poor students at the base of the mountain.

California’s low-income students rank next to last in the nation in 4th-grade math. The scores also show that many persistent equity gaps remain and some have even widened. We see a backward slide for Black students in both 4th- and 8th-grade math. Also, gaps for Black, Latino, and low-income students in math widened in 8th-grade, a crucial gatekeeping year for college preparatory courses in high school. The widening gaps for Black, Latino, and low-income students serve as a reminder that we are not yet doing enough to provide supports for them to succeed.

Achievement gaps are the result of opportunity gaps, a reflection of choices we continue to make as a state. California low-income students and students of color who we’ve historically underserved continue to receive less — we deny them equal access to college preparatory courses, to college counselors as well as to diverse and effective educators, like Ms. Lockhart, who play such a vital role in supporting student success. Instead, we subject these students to discipline policies that push them out of school rather than focusing on creating a welcoming environment that helps them achieve their goals.

I believe every student has their own brilliance and talents, no matter their background or ZIP code. The onus isn’t on our youth, but on us adults to provide resources to students and educators to turn the curve of the data we see. We must also commit to dismantling the barriers in our state’s education system – a system rooted in systemic and institutional racism. A system designed over centuries to under-educate and not educate our most marginalized communities.

Over a decade after I finished my undergrad at UCLA, I realize I wouldn’t be here without those who supported my educational goals. Now, Culver City’s African American students are almost twice as likely to meet standards in math and English language arts as the state average for other Black students. And there’s more good news coming out of the Culver City community. My assistant principal, Ms. Lockhart, continued her good work and was recently appointed superintendent of Culver City Unified School District, the first Black person to ever hold that position. This district serves as a good example that with the right focus and right supports, all students have the ability to succeed.

California’s prosperity hinges on how well we educate our students. This year we will hear from individuals vying to become governor and state superintendent of public instruction. We must remind them that California’s future depends on the 6 million students currently in our schools and the millions more that will attend our schools over the next few decades. These are the students who will become the marine biologists working along our coasts, the engineers perfecting high-speed rail, and the community leaders holding our state accountable for years to come. Now is not a time for complacency but for a greater sense of urgency.

 Ryan J. Smith is executive director of The Education Trust–West, a research and advocacy organization focused on educational justice and the high academic achievement of all California students, particularly those of color and living in poverty. He is also vice president of The Education Trust.

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