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'It continues to be a fight' | Closing the African American achievement gap in California

Student achievement gaps are large and persistent in California. Black students consistently have lower academic performance than white students year after year.

SACRAMENTO COUNTY, Calif. — As a math teacher, Marcus Atkins is working to make a positive change. He grew up in Sacramento and says he often felt isolated as a Black student in public school.

"I did not have representation that looked like me," said Atkins. "I did not get my first African American teacher until high school. I did not get my first African American male teacher until the 11th grade and that was the only one I had in grade school."

Representation in education matters. It means school teachers, principals and other academic leaders accurately reflect the diverse student body and communities they serve. Representation in education helps strengthen communities and improve student outcomes in elementary, middle and high schools.

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A 2018 study, led by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and American University, shows Black students who had just one Black teacher by third grade were 13% more likely to enroll in college. Those who had two were 32% more likely.

African American representation in education is lacking across the country. According to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in the 2017-2018 school year, 79% of public school teachers were white and 7% were Black.

In California, African American representation in education needs improvement, too. The latest data from the California Department of Education shows there were more white teachers (188,229) in public schools than African American teachers (11,998) during the 2018-2019 school year. 

The data also shows there were only 3,705 African American male teachers compared to 49,590 white male teachers during the same school year.

"I knew going to an HBCU would give me a different perspective, and it did," said Atkins.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities, also called HBCUs, are institutions established prior to 1964 to help educate Black people. Atkins proudly graduated from Hampton University in Virginia in 2008. He eventually started teaching at Fortune Middle School in Elk Grove.

Credit: Marcus Atkins

Fortune School of Education was established in 1989. It's a network of high-performing, tuition-free public charter schools. It serves grades transitional kindergarten through 12th in Sacramento, and transitional kindergarten through 8th in San Bernardino. It's open to all students.

Fortune School was created, specifically, to close the African American achievement gap. The Fortune mission is "to graduate high achieving students of good character prepared for college and citizenship in a democratic society."

Achievement gaps happen when one group of students, like students grouped by race or gender, outperforms another group and the difference in average scores for the two groups is statistically significant.

Student achievement gaps are large and persistent in California. Black students consistently have lower academic performance than white students, year after year, in areas, like test scores, attendance and disproportionate suspension rates.

According to the latest data from the California Department of Education, graduation rates for Black students dropped by more than 4% in the 2020-2021 school year, while graduation rates for white students went up nearly half a percent.

Michael Lynch is the CEO of Improve Your Tomorrow. It's a Sacramento-based nonprofit with the mission "to increase the number of young men of color (YMOC) to attend and graduate from colleges and universities."

Credit: ABC10

Lynch says more Black students can succeed with equitable access to resources in education and society, overall.

"Historically, Black students have struggled to succeed as well as their peers in California," said Lynch. "The conditions in which Black students show up to their schools matter, like the infrastructure, housing, food insecurity and economic circumstances. So, if Black students are not showing up to school fed, feeling secured, or leaving challenging homes or environments, the city and county is responsible."

By leading IYT, Lynch and the rest of the IYT team focus on closing the college opportunity gap, specifically for young men of color. IYT says the systemic barriers young men of color face, like the school-to-prison pipeline, do not end once they graduate high school.

That's why IYT provides a list of educational programs, like IYT College Academy and IYT University. These programs come with mentorship, college advising, college tours, tutoring, parent engagement and more.

Outside of ensuring all students, especially Black youth, have equitable access to resources, Lynch goes on to explain the power of representation. He says the shortage of Black teachers is a contributing factor to the achievement gap in education.


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"If you're often not interacting with a teacher who shares your same cultural experiences, if you're in class where you may not be engaged, all of these challenges are disproportionate amongst Black students," said Lynch. "It's not one entity that's solely responsible, but a systemic structure that has historically failed Black students to make sure that they can succeed at their best level."

At Fortune School, African American leaders hold the roadmap to Black student achievement. Fortune is looking to hire more diverse teachers, especially in the shortage areas of science and math.

Outside of ensuring Black representation at Fortune, some other practices being used to help close the achievement gap include:

  • The school leader has a vision and plan based upon the expectation that students can and will succeed.
  • The teachers are selected for their beliefs that students can and will succeed and a willingness to show progress toward that goal.
  • The parents commit to assisting students at home and supporting the school.
  • The students who need extra time for instruction receive it.
  • Overall enrollment is smaller than average. 
  • Professional development for teachers and time for peer collaboration. 
  • The parents receive learning opportunities to encourage involvement.
  • Meaningful experiences to encourage aspiration for college and career. 
  • Technology platforms are deployed for instruction, family communications, data analysis and public information. 
  • Instructional strategies are based on frequent student assessments and adjustments to instructional strategies as necessary.
  • Community supporters are engaged.

Atkins is determined to help all scholars, especially Black students, succeed through representation in classrooms, along with applying culturally appropriate teaching strategies.

"It continues to be a fight," said Atkins. "It's a fight that I'm willing to fight for. Our scholars are everything. They are our future and I see myself in all of them. I'm honestly here to give them a better experience than what I got."

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