What accounts for the achievement gap between minority and white students? Researchers have long looked at economic differences as a key factor, but lately the role of school discipline policies has been getting more attention. Some lawmakers in California have proposed three bills focused on school climate as a way to narrow the achievement gap.
The release of statewide achievement test scores earlier this month underscored the need to address other factors beyond income level that might be contributing to an achievement gap.
Controlling for economic differences, African American students continue to trail white and Latino students in mathematics. Middle and high-income black students fell six percentage points below low-income white students, while Latino students trailed by one percentage point.
Lester Meza, a youth organizer with the educational advocacy organization, Inner City Struggle, said that young men of color need mental and behavioral health services instead of punitive suspension policies to succeed in school at a recent hearing at the State Capitol in Sacramento.
“When children and young men of color are allowed to express their feelings in a more amenable way, they spend more time in class, they become more educated, and when they come out of high school, they are college and career ready,” said Meza.
Studies show punitive discipline policies undermine school performance. Students who are suspended from school are three times more likely than their peers to drop out of school and Latino and African American students in Los Angeles and San Francisco are six times and two times, respectively, more likely to be suspended than white students, according to Public Counsel, an organization working to curb school suspensions and expulsions in California.
Community organizations working to narrow the racial achievement gap are beginning to shift their focus to boys and men, partly because young women fare better in school than their male counterparts and are less likely to be criminalized by the system, advocates say.
Latino and black young men are 10 percent more likely to drop out of California schools compared to their female counterparts.
“Boys and men of color matter. We cannot continue to be afraid, dismiss, and punitively punish our men. We have to realize we all matter for California to thrive,” said Jasmine Jones, a community organizer with the Black Organizing Project in Oakland.
A growing movement made up of community groups and advocates is pushing for reforms to school discipline policies that disproportionately impact Latino and African American boys, as a way to address the achievement gap and the high drop out rate.
Leading the movement is the Alliance of Boys and Men of Color, a statewide alliance of youth-led advocacy organizations. The alliance was created to advance the policy efforts of the Assembly Select Committee on Boys and Men of Color (BMoC), and the campaign is funded by The California Endowment. (New America Media is a TCE grantee.) Members of the group testified at the Select Committee hearing at the State Capitol earlier this month, calling for changes in policies and funding to improve outcomes for boys and men of color in education, health, safety and justice, and employment.
The Alliance of Boys and Men of Color are actively advocating for the passage of several pending state bills that address punitive school policies.
The priority bill among BMoC student advocates is Assembly Bill 420 (Dickinson), which would limit school suspensions and expulsions based on “willful defiance,” which make up the bulk of suspensions and expulsions in California schools. Willful defiance is defined as disrupting school activities or defying the authority of school staff.
Meza, one of the student advocates that provided testimony at the BMoC Select Committee hearing on August 8, said he benefited from a school policy that provided an alternative to suspension. To work through his hardships at home, he participated in a school counseling program.
“I had the option of taking counseling because my teachers cared for me,” Meza said. “In many other cities, they would have not dealt with that. They would have just suspended me, expelled me or moved me to a different school where they didn’t have to deal with me.”
Through his school, Meza was able to access anger management counseling for a period of five years. The unique model of school-based “wellness centers” is promoted through another policy backed by the youth-led Alliance of Boys and Men of Color, Assembly Bill 174 (Bonta). The bill will help create a grant program to fund school-based mental health services for students specifically impacted by violence and trauma, an issue that impacts low-income communities of color that are plagued with gun violence.
Another bill (AB 549), introduced by BMoC Committee member Assemblymember Reggie Jones Sawyer, would encourage school districts to define the role of police officers, among other school officials, on school campuses.
A 2009 report by the American Civil Liberties Union shows that students who have experienced an arrest or a court appearance are more likely to drop out of school and underperform on tests.
“Our organization is … focused on eliminating school police, “ said Jones. “One of my youth came into the office after being pulled over [by police], crying. I want my students to be able to walk in their communities without being afraid of officers. To not be threatened by their presence.”
Lawmakers will vote and these and other measures before the close of legislative session on September 13.