Separate, unequal, dismal: Urban League rekindles leaders’ commitments to improve public schools

“This report is a great rallying call for us. It’s important that we continue as an education community to come together and have honest conversations and dialogue,” said Dana Peterson, deputy superintendent of external affairs for the Recovery School District. (photo courtesy of <iStockphoto/NNPA>)

The Urban League of Louisiana released an equity report examining the quality of Baton Rouge public schools and identifying gaps in outcomes, access, and excellence.

Calling the findings “dismal” and “concerning,” several education stakeholders were present at the McKinley Alumni Center for a press conference and panel discussion to present data from the Advancing Educational Equity for Public Schools in Baton Rouge report.

The findings are not new neither are the gaps. However, organizers said the report analyzes the data in a way that would rekindle conversations and actions around creating equity for students attending public schools within Baton Rouge.

“This report is a great rallying call for us. It’s important that we continue as an education community to come together and have honest conversations and dialogue,” said Dana Peterson, deputy superintendent of external affairs for the Recovery School District.

The report documents inequalities and an academic ‘opportunity gap’ for historically disadvantaged students in the areas of student outcomes, school climate, school access, teacher quality, and discipline. It found great disparities in performance on state assessments by race and ethnicity. Also, less than 50% of Hispanic students earn any form of diploma or credential while 36.7% of White students earned a diploma with an advanced credential, compared to 6.1% for Black students. (These findings were compiled from publicly available information at <www.LouisianaBelieves.com>.

According to Adam Smith, East Baton Rouge Schools’ associate superintendent of schools, the district has made “significant gains.” These gains include a 5% increase in student performance and an increase in the number of Black students taking Advanced Placement tests.

The report did not identify institutional or systemic barriers that have kept these results pervasive in the city and throughout Louisiana. However, the Louisiana Budget Project released a report in May identifying the impact of ‘highly segregated’ schools.

“Louisiana and local school districts are putting themselves at a disadvantage by failing to properly address segregation in public schools,” wrote LBP.

Like LBP, the Urban League found that public schools with a majority white student population have much higher teacher retention rates, higher percentages of certified teachers, and are far more likely to be rated ‘A’ or ‘B’ than schools with high minority populations. Data shows that in Baton Rouge, more than half (52%) of Black students enrolled in public schools attend ‘D’ or “’F’ rated schools.

“We will also be the first to admit that we are not where we want to be, but we are committed to the ongoing communication and collaboration with key partners that will be essential in moving our schools forward,” Smith said.

“The inequities that economically disadvantaged students and students of color are facing is concerning but we now have information analyzed in a way that allows us to begin addressing it,” said Judy Reese Morse, president/CEO of the Urban League of Louisiana. She encouraged Baton Rouge leaders to “use the findings to work toward building an education system that serves all students equitably.”

In a school district that is under a federal desegregation order, commitment and action towards academic equity are critical, especially as Baton Rouge faces more segregation. This report comes a week after secessionists voted to incorporate the city of St. George in an effort motivated mainly by the desire to form a separate, majority white school district.

“Louisiana and local school districts are putting themselves at a disadvantage by failing to properly address segregation in public schools,” wrote LBP. “It is time we have a genuine discussion about what it takes to ensure every child has access to quality education.”

Education reform leader Lisa Delpit, Ph.D., said inequality has also been the result of unequal funding, the lack of Black teachers, and ever-changing national policies that benefit white students and affluent students while harming others. As part of a panel that followed the news conference, Delpit challenged leaders to look closely at the findings at what has worked for Black students and replicate it.

“We must create new school models, programs, and an environment to foster innovation. I’m proud to know that we have plans in place to address these issues,” said Peterson.

These plans include having parents, educators, and school administrators assist in establishing strategies and solutions to ensure equality, said Dana Henry, vice president of education and youth development at the Urban League of Louisiana.

Although the report did not offer specific strategies or solutions, panelists did.

Delpit admonished the community at large to get involved. “Pay attention to education policies. Stand strong about redistributing funding and those of us who can, need to support (the schools) as often as we can.”

Baton Rouge Councilman LaMont Cole said panelists and organizations involved in the process (Urban League, EBR Schools, Baton Rouge Area Chamber, and New Schools) should pick a school and “get to work” giving it everything it need to be sustained.

Excellence is never an accident,” he said. “We have to choose excellence and be intentional.”

Cole, who has been a principal at several schools in the city, said equality is when administrators and teachers have what they need to reach individual students where they are, give the students exactly what they need to succeed, and then, sustain it.

“Choose excellence and make it happen,” he repeated.

Chris Meyer, CEO, New Schools for Baton Rouge agreed: “We should expand schools that are working and intervene in schools that need it.

“We must be strategically intentional. We must be deliberate in the breaking down of silos. As the city of Baton Rouge becomes more intentionally grounded in educational equity, we will reach our goals and will tear down silos while helping the students of Baton Rouge excel,” said Pamela Ravare-Jones, Ph.D., chief administrative officer who spoke on behalf of EBR Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.

Urban League of Louisiana officials said the organization would host follow-up community meetings. “This report is just a road map and we’re going to build from here,” Henry said. “We are not going anywhere; we’re going to be here.”