Santa Monica-Malibu Unified’s New Superintendent – Finally Racial Justice?

LOS ANGELES

EDUCATION POLITICS-On Sunday April 2, the Committee for Racial Justice in Santa Monica had as their guest speaker Dr. Ben Drati, the relatively new African American superintendent of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD). What Dr. Drati discussed in his presentation was SMMUSD's decision to once and for all effectively deal with the unacceptable realities behind why African American and Latino students continue to do poorly at SMMUSD -- and what can be done to close this achievement gap with verifiable results. 

While I had some problems with Dr. Drati's approach to achieving minority student parity with their generally more affluent and academically successful non-minority peers, what I nonetheless found refreshing in his approach was a his willingness to incorporate ideas that might enable him and SMMUSD to help minority students to achieve their potential. 

The "coherent and cohesive focus" that Dr. Drati seeks to implement at SMMUSD to improve minority achievement, will require that he not underestimate the entrenched "culture of opposition" he will surely encounter when his reforms challenge the profitable vested interests of those who are doing just fine financially under the present system. 

Dr. Drati believes the "people leading schools have best intentions in mind." The reality is that we have 2.3 million people presently incarcerated in our prisons, one million of whom are African American. Fixing our schools so that minority students come out highly educated, socialized and employable, could not help but cut into these rates of incarceration and the obscene corporate profits that have been generated by them for so long.

There is also a tendency to minimize or not really understand the profoundly positive effect a good pragmatically driven public education system can have when it does more than mouth platitudes that most of those running the system don't even really believe. For example, Dr. Drati presented a list of several factors that schools could not control in dealing with minority underachievement. The reality is that a well functioning school is the actual mechanism that eliminates these negative factors. 

According to Dr. Drati, schools "don't control the level of poverty and living conditions" of its student population. But in American history, functioning public schools have always been the social integration mechanism that has assured students will more often than not do better socio-economically than their parents, who often had inferior educations. So far, this has eluded Black and Latino students. Why is that? 

If the "parents’ education level" continues to function as a continuing negative indicator of their children's achievement, because they are incapable of helping their children with homework, there are certain measures to try. Something as easy and relatively inexpensive as keeping the schools open after regular school hours and into the evening, so that students can get supplemental help with homework, can not only give underachieving students a place to get help but it might also serve as a forum for drawing back to school some of the students -- and parents -- who may have become frustrated and dropped out. It would be a lot cheaper than incarceration in the juvenile justice system that costs $78,000 a year per youth. 

Most importantly, Dr. Drati needs to know that any K-12 education system cannot assume that students arriving into a school at a given grade-level are objectively at that grade-level as measured by mastery of all prior grade-level standards. The existing system that now socially promotes students irrespective of their true grade-levels, has been and continues to be the greatest factor in creating student apathy, classroom disruption, and the lack of self-worth these students continue to suffer from unnecessarily. Could this have something to do with explaining why 70% of students who ultimately make it into the community college system in California wind up taking remedial courses in subjects that should have been remediated while in K-12? And how was it their K-12 schools awarded them high school diplomas? 

In dealing with the present de facto segregated public education system that still exists throughout the vast majority of inner city schools, there are some very difficult truths that cannot be avoided or ignored. For the past 400 years, there has been a systematic decimation a people based on race. It cannot be overcome without addressing the quantifiable, predictable damage this system has had and would have on any people unwillingly subjugated to it. A belated "equal education" for people who have been assured that they are not equal will not work to turn this travesty around – to the benefit of all Americans -- unless a pragmatic, subjective assessment of each student’s academic standing is done to ensure a relevant education the students can benefit from. 

One of the hardest issues to address and get the public to accept in order to turn around our failed public education system is to recognize that we as a society have perpetrated immutable damage that has limited the future of what were once the unlimited possibilities of the poor and minority students subjected to it. It now behooves us to transition from this "inherently unequal" low expectation school system to one "with liberty and justice for all." We must not ignore the damage we have done, which if left unaddressed, would continue to preclude these students from attaining any possible remaining success in the future. 

As we move to lessen the negative impact of this necessary transition period, it might be advisable to stop using empty, disingenuous rhetoric. More specifically, with a total college and university capacity in this country of 40% of high school graduates, why have public schools all but eliminated industrial arts and career training programs that students could use to achieve gainful employment after leaving school or to enable them to defray the ever increasing costs of post-secondary education? 

Another temptation that reformers like Dr. Drati need to avoid if they are to assure that minority students get the timely education they are entitled to, is not to adapt the system to the current low, negative achievement results of a racist system. In successfully educating any student, their age and grade levels need to be ignored and replaced with an assessment of where the individual student is subjectively – while at the same time assessing what each one is capable of learning. Such an approach might result in a pleasant surprise, a system in which minority students finally feel safe and respected and able to let down their guard, becoming "school boys or girls" without suffering the slings and arrows of their peers. 

In his talk, Dr. Drati posed the question: "What is going on in the mind of somebody who thinks it's okay to kill" without understanding that such a person has neither Drati's education nor vocabulary to understand the ramifications of such an action. With an average 500 word vocabulary, these young people engaging in violence on the streets of Los Angeles or Chicago are the logical result of failing to educate too many of this country's most important asset: its kids. This is important for all of our futures...if we want to have one. 

Although a product of the Los Angeles public school system who had the atypical ability to go on to college and get degrees in both biochemistry and a doctorate in education, I must confess I was not surprised to find out that Dr. Drati's family had immigrated to the United States. To me, this means that his family was probably not subjected to the systematic siege that most Black American families have suffered for far too long. Imagine what African American and Latinos students might achieve in school if they were given a level playing field like Dr. Drati had. 

(Leonard Isenberg is a Los Angeles observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He was a second generation teacher at LAUSD and blogs at perdaily.com. Leonard can be reached at Lenny@perdaily.com) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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