Black community activists are criticizing Chicago Public Schools leaders for not doing more to examine and address an educational achievement gap between Black students and other racial groups.
A couple dozen Black community leaders attended Thursday’s Board of Education meeting to call on the board to create a committee that would develop a strategy to help Black students academically.
The meeting was held at Austin College and Career Academy High School on the West Side in the first of a series of board meetings set to be held on evenings in neighborhoods across the city. The change is meant to give more access to working parents and kids than the usual afternoon downtown board meetings during work and school hours. About 100 people watched on Thursday in the school’s bright and broad auditorium.
Toward the start of the meeting, CPS officials announced they would begin creating a five-year strategic plan for the district and in that larger process would select an advisory team for Black student success that would report to CEO Pedro Martinez. That team would eventually offer recommendations based on its findings, CPS said.
But the plan was a surprise to Black activists who said they weren’t told of the development and felt folding it into the strategic plan would cause the issue to be overlooked. They instead wanted a committee at the board level.
Former school board member Dwayne Truss said it was a “disingenuous” plan given there’s a board advisory committee on special education students and a task force on migrant students.
“All we are simply asking is that we can have a seat at the table so that we can go ahead and be part of that success,” Truss said.
“Dude,” Truss said directly to board president Jianan Shi, “it’s not a good look, especially when you are an Asian American person talking to Black folks in a Black neighborhood, saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’
“Folks, all we see is the same old, same old,” Truss said.
The president of the West Side NAACP tried to speak but was not registered for the meeting’s public comment section, so the mic was turned off.
Community leader Valerie Leonard said it’s important to have a standing committee at the board level so there is some accountability for this longstanding disparity.
“I am 60 years old; we had an achievement gap when I was born, we have an achievement gap now,” Leonard said. “At what point will we have priority for Black children? It is not enough to have a strategic plan. It is not enough to say, ‘We hear you.’ I want you to see me.”
Natasha Dunn said reading and math scores have plummeted to the lowest in 30 years. At a news conference before the meeting, Dunn accused the board and school district officials of ignoring the group.
“The fact that you do not see it necessary and important while witnessing children in CPS struggle and flounder in the system,” she said.
Board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said she understands the distrust of the Board of Education and CPS given the lack of progress spanning decades.
Todd-Breland, a University of Illinois Chicago professor of African American, urban and education history, cited the 55th anniversary of Black student walkouts. Primarily led by high schoolers on the West Side, the protests demanded more Black teachers and administrators and a better quality education.
“Many of the same issues that they were talking about in 1968 are still present today,” she said, acknowledging the “pain that we heard today, the righteous anger that we heard today and the earned distrust of this body that we are now a part of.”
But she said this new board, filled with parents, activists and organizers, is serious about working with Black families to make real changes. She lamented efforts at reform like school closings, No Child Left Behind and other government programs “that particularly harmed Black students.” The process announced Thursday “is intended … in very explicit ways to turn the page on some of these previous” initiatives, she said.
“These persistent opportunity gaps for Black students in particular are a sign of our collective failure as adults, not some type of inferiority amongst Black children,” Todd-Breland said.
“I understand why people distrust us to do that work. But part of what we’re asking and saying is that the only way to address the needs of Black students and communities is for us to do this work together moving forward,” she said. “We need community members like those that came out tonight to help us as board members, to help the district, to create a Black student success plan. Not in some future state, but this year, that will be voted on by this body.”