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News | March 1, 2017

Black History Month observance delves into black education crisis

By Kimberly K. Fritz

The Engineering Directorate of Defense Logistics Agency Aviation hosted a Black History Month observation at the Frank B. Lotts Conference Center on Defense Supply Center Richmond, Virginia Feb. 21, where participants took a closer look at the state of black education in Virginia. The national theme for the 2017 Black History Month focuses on the crucial role of education in the history of African Americans.

Guest speaker, Leah Walker, community and minority affairs liaison for Virginia’s Department of Education shared statistics with audience members about achievement gaps in minority education, including African-Americans.

“When I was first approached to speak here and was told the topic was the crisis in black education, I instantly rejected that,” she said. “There certainly are opportunities when it comes to the educational outcomes of African-American students, both in Virginia and nationally and I want to talk with you about those today.”

Walker began her presentation by highlighting the path of African-American students beginning in 1861 when African-American teachers established the first openly taught school for black students in the state.

In 1868, the first official public school for black children was opened in Petersburg, known as the Peabody School,” she said. “In 1869, the constitution of the commonwealth, established public education.

The law stated there must be racial segregation in public schools.” Walker noted that Virginia is one of the few public education systems that codified the establishment of education in their constitution.

At the turn of the 20th century, when reform began in the South, black education changed to look more like it does today.

Walker said that black children might still face obstacles in their education today.

“We are always talking about the achievement gaps,” Walker said. “We’ve heard about it at our federal level when Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act or reauthorized the federal K-12 law. Their biggest question was how we address the achievement gap. What should we require to ensure every student is looked after?

The state is also looking at ways to ensure school divisions are reaching every student.

“Our state board of education is looking at these numbers and asking how we can design a system of accountability that ensures school systems cannot ignore the approximate 20-point gap between white students and black students. The good news is that the gap is decreasing over time, but there is still a huge gap.”

School discipline is also an area were improvements are needed, Walker said.

“Who is familiar with the school-to-prison pipeline?” she asked. “Virginia was ranked No. 1 in the country for making the most referrals from school systems to law enforcement officers. Whom do you think is being referred to law enforcement? Black students are; black males in particular.”

Although black students make up only 23 percent of the state’s school population more than 50 percent of the referrals to law enforcement are black students, Walker said. She also said, short-term suspensions and long-term suspensions are also disproportionate.

“There is probably a linkage in the number of students we are putting outside of our classrooms and the low state assessments scores,” she said.

In response to that data, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe launched an initiative called Classrooms not Courtrooms last year. A multi-agency, administration-wide push to reduce student referrals to law enforcement, reduce suspensions and expulsions, address the disparate impact these practices have on African-Americans and students with disabilities, and address the emphasis on subjective offenses like disorderly conduct.

Walker said the initiative is already creating learning opportunities for faculty and teachers for reducing the number of suspensions at their schools.

Virginia State University’s Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Donald Palm also served as an observance guest speaker.

Palm spoke about the role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the positive impacts they have played in the world and with students that may have faced some of the concerns Walker discussed.

“We have open arms and we are working to make difference in the lives of students who may have experienced issues in the K-12 system,” Palm said. “We wrap our arms around them and bring them to a place that’s really productive.”

Calvin Lee, Engineering Directorate deputy director, spoke about an evolving partnership program between directorate employees and the students at VSU.

“We are setting up a mentoring and shadowing program between our own engineering department and the school,” Lee said. “When that comes to fruition it will be the first of many partnerships.”

The Association for the Study of African-American History and Life provided information about the crisis in black education for the observation’s program. The executive summary is available at