Terry Mitchell, the co-founder of Black Leaders Collective, kicked off the education town hall with a question traditionally asked by the East African Maasai tribe, “And how are the children?”
The expression connotes that the true strength of a community is determined by the well-being of its children. Mitchell, like the Massai tribe, believes this is the single most important question to consider each and every day.
The emergency town hall meeting on the State of Black Education was hosted by the Austin Area Urban League, Black Leaders Collective, East Austin Coalition for Quality Education, and the NAACP Austin branch.
In a two-part series, the community and Austin ISD leadership will come together to identify the problem areas and chart a path to future success for black children in the district.
The first installment held on July 27, 2022, focused on the performance of District 1 and who should be educating black kids.
AISD’s Interim Superintendent, Anthony Mays, in attendance with several members of the district’s leadership team, said he was interested in co-creating and co-developing solutions to the problems of Black education in Austin.
Mays, who came into the position in June, said one of the things he and his team have been working on is developing a uniform success metric across all schools.
“We’re developing a tool that allows us to look at instruction across our system, so we understand what quality instruction looks like,” Mays said. “We are also looking at data, academic and disciplinary, to figure out where our students are, and where they should be.”
Gilbert Hicks, Elementary Associate Superintendent, said African American students exceeded pre-pandemic performance levels in elementary reading. There was only a two-point increase from 2019 to 2021. Meanwhile, white students showed an eight-point increase from 2019 to 2021. In math and science, Black students are 13 and 15 points behind pre-pandemic numbers. The downward trend continued for middle school math.
Across the district, 5% of Black students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses. These courses are eligible for college credit if students take the exam at the end of the year and earn a passing score. Less than 50% of the Black students enrolled earned college credit.
Cultural proficiency does not equal niceness. It is not just realizing you have students from various backgrounds, races, and ethnicities,
Stephanie Hawley, AISD’s Equity Officer, said her office is working to train leadership so they can do the work with an equitable lens.“Our work is not just the celebration of culture,” Hawley said. “It is really about how we can break down and dismantle the system.”
The Equity Office developed seven conditions to enable and promote student success in the district. Culturally proficient and responsive teachers and staff is the number one condition on AISD’s roadmap to cultivating an equity ecosystem.
“Cultural proficiency does not equal niceness. It is not just realizing you have students from various backgrounds, races, and ethnicities,” Hawley said. “Teachers must have a firm understanding of who they are, what biases they bring to the table, and how who they are as individuals informs the way they interact and instruct students.”
In collaboration with other departments, the Equity Office has launched a district-wide cultural proficiency professional learning plan. Since there are not enough black and brown teachers in the United State, the Equity Office plans to work with what they have. Hawley said her team also realizes the importance of a school system that can recognize, and cultivate students’ gifts, talents, and interests.
“Stop blaming the students for system failure. Every child, Black, white, Latino, immigrant, Asian, all bring strengths into the classroom,” Hawley said. “I don’t care if the students are low income, no matter where that student is from, they bring something that we can build upon.”
Other conditions for student success, according to AISD’s Equity Office, include having high expectations and support to meet those high expectations; building positive relationships with teachers and peers; cultivating a sense of belonging, empowerment, connection, and identity safety; crafting a rigorous, relevant and inclusive curriculum; and well-maintained facilities supporting state-of-the-art instruction.
“This is complex work, and the district is doing the work,” Hawley said. “It took over 100 years to get where we are, but there’s a commitment to transformation, even if it is difficult.” Mays believes continued community engagement will position the students and the district for long-term success.
“Every director knows they are completely accountable for embedding themselves within their community and building those connections,” Mays said. “We’re making sure everybody’s coming along with us as we consider any potential change.”
The second installment of the emergency town hall meeting takes place at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Center at 10 a.m. on Saturday, August 6, 2022, with a focus on student discipline, barriers to learning, and the exodus of black teachers from the district. Register to attend.