The African American Parent Council for Pasadena Unified showcased seven PUSD School Board candidates in a virtual forum Tuesday which focused on testing scores, overall student performance and opportunities in the District for Black students.
Led by host Nia Bailey, candidates for various district seats responded to questions from moderators Dr. Toutoule Ntoya, an educator and entrepreneur, and Nate Bradley, who helped develop the PUSD’s “Math Power Hour” program.
Patrice Marshall McKenzie, deputy chief of staff to LAUSD Board Member Dr. George McKenna, first delivered an illuminating step-by-step primer on advocating for changes in government policy, beginning with a breakdown of the U.S. government and its branches, all the way to state and city governments, local boards, districts and agencies.
McKenzie urged the forum participants to take a more active role in local government, whether on the neighborhood or the national level.
Seven candidates appeared in the virtual program: PUSD parent and retiree Mike Crowley; PUSD parent and attorney Wayne Hammack, and Altadena Town Councilmember Jennifer Hall Lee, who are all running for the District 2 seat; PUSD parent and advocate Scott Harden and PUSD Board President Patrick Cahalan, both running for District 4; and education administrator Crystal Czubernat, and engineer Tina Wu Frederick, both running for District 6.
District 6 candidates Priscilla Hernandez and Milena Albert did not participate in the forum.
One question of the three posed to the seven PUSD Board candidates seemed to best speak to the challenges the district faces with African American students, however, and helped to summarize the candidate’s overall positions.
Thus, Bradley began by asking Crowley, the overarching question about the “1,192 African American students out of 15,917 PUSD students, whose performance is reflected year after year as behind other student groups.
“What do you see as the school board’s role and responsibility to close this achievement gap?” Bradley asked.
Crowley noted that teacher hiring and training of new African American teachers was the most important thing and said, “Part of my platform is to work with teachers and staff to give them exactly what they need.”
Crowley added, “The teacher education program from K to 12 must embrace and support public schools. The evaluation is very important as well. We can’t have teachers making their own rules.”
Asked about that same “achievement gap,” Jennifer Hall Lee said, “I think perhaps it’s time to think differently about that.”
As Lee, who graduated from an alternative high school in Atlanta, explained, “I’ve been reading a lot about different steps that unified school districts have taken across the nation.”
Lee said that her research had led her to the importance of mentoring.
“I had zeroed in on a few districts that were doing mentoring, particularly of African American girls, and how it really shifted how they saw themselves as students in school,” said Lee. “I’m really behind that because I think we need to reach out to the individual student. Students still don’t all live in the same environments as we know, and they have different life experiences. So how can we expect them to all be the same on a standardized test score, which I guess is what the achievement gaps are measuring.”
Candidate Hammack said, “It’s very disappointing what we’ve seen year after year, with respect to the achievement gap.” But, he added, “I do take some heart and some solace in the fact that there are a lot of volunteers and administrators who are taking very positive steps.”
Hammack also noted that he had attended another recent online meeting hosted by PUSD Board Member Michelle Richardson Bailey, and said, “I saw the positivity and the hope that that group brought, and the fresh ideas.
Hammack added that he felt that, “You’ve really got to get through to all of our kids, by the time they hit second grade,” citing the elementary “Math Power Hour” program as an example.
“Things like that are really important,” said Hammack. He also lamented the declining number of African American teachers in the District, saying that, according to a recent survey by PUSD Boardmember Kimberly Kenne, the number has reduced by 32 African American teachers over the past six years.
“I know (Superintendent Dr. Brian) McDonald has said we’re actively trying to work on recruiting. That’s something we need to be working on.”
District 4 Candidate Harden, a PTA president and advocate for Don Benito Elementary School, called the achievement gap a “bigger problem than just the district”.
“First of all,” he said, “inequities in education start early on for some of our student groups. Especially the Black students. We know there’s a number of community factors and lack of early interventions that can work to push down our Black students very early on.”
Continued Harden, “We know that a system in our community works to strip Black families of opportunity, lack of sufficient wages, employment unavailability and housing affordability, inadequate healthcare, aggressive policing, closure of schools, and transportation options being very thin, which prevents students from getting to the opportunities that might help close those gaps.”
“It’s a community problem,” Harden added, “and that’s why I need the community to help partner, to solve it. I think public schools work best with candid conversations between those who promise their children a better future and those who they’ve entrusted, to deliver on that future.”
Cahalan, the current school board president, said there were three main steps in dealing with the achievement gap.
Began Cahalan, “I was a big supporter of the African American student initiative back before for the district had to pull it, So I support Prop 16 (a measure to restore the State’s Affirmative Action program.)
Cahalan said pointedly, “I believe that the data shows very clearly that California education is both class-ist and systemically racist. Those two things are very coupled together, in consequences.
Continued Cahalan, “I think the particular history of Pasadena, of longstanding was the redlining that was in this town, and the racial covenants that were still in place in Pasadena past the passage of the Civil Rights Act were really just deplorable. So that’s led to a lot of systemic issues in the district. And I think trying to target entirely and only by socioeconomic status is not doing justice to the efforts to remedy that history.”
“The second part,” he said,” is that I broadly support board member Bailey’s current initiative to focus on black students.
Cahalan said he agreed with both Board member Bailey as well as Kenne, that the district “needs to do a better job of focusing the supplemental and concentration funds, particularly the supplemental funds, towards the students that are in those groups and distributing them to those groups.
Cahalan added that he has been a proponent of adding demographic weight to open enrollment policies so that the parents of the disadvantaged students in this district, including minority students and black students would get “more weight” on the school (waiting list) lottery.
“So they would have a different shot,” he said.
Czubernet, District 6 candidate, also pointed out that the numbers in the achievement gap are increasing, creating an even larger gap which she called a “pure travesty,” and said that the problem needs “immediate attention.”
Added Czubernet, “I have been impressed with the movement that Michelle Bailey and Superintendent Dr. McDonald have made in the last several months, in making a commitment to our African American students and then Dr. MacDonald coming in to ensure that we have started an action plan.
“Not only that,” said Czubernet, “but we need to ensure that our teachers and our administration are reflecting the student body. Czubernet noted that “given the numbers of African American students in PUSD, we certainly do not have that many African American teachers. So I’d also like to see more African American teachers and administrators that are reflecting our student body.”
Finally, Fredericks took a more aerial and academic view of the gap, saying, “The school board sets the vision, the long term vision and the long term plan for the district. And the board’s not supposed to micromanage, but it’s supposed to facilitate a process to close the achievement gap.”
Continued Fredericks, “I believe that everything has to be based on data. In order to evaluate whether anything’s working, we need to evaluate data. How are the students doing? Are their outcomes improving? Which programs are resulting in better outcomes? If we identify what is working, we should align our funding accordingly.
So,” said Fredericks, adding a small plea to her case, “my general feeling is that our budget should match our values. And if we’re serious about closing the achievement gap down, then we have to fund that cause, and I know that, you know, during this economic time right now, it’s really difficult, but you know, the San Gabriel Valley, Pasadena, has resources. We just need to leverage them. We need to have partnerships with our public and private institutions
Adding that the district needs to close the achievement gap “as early as possible,” Fredericks posited, “Why not invest in universal preschool so that all kids, when they start kindergarten here, they have a leg up? And so that all students can have that gap be even smaller at the beginning of their education.
Finally, said Fredericks, “Let’s make sure that kids can read by the time it’s third grade that’s when you switch from learning to read, to reading to learn.”