Soul searching, hope and despair (and popcorn): A mother describes the Achievement Gap Summit

Since there has been so much discussion in this forum about the racial achievement gap, I asked Kim Shipp, a parent who attended the summit in Sacramento, to tell us her impressions of the event. -Katy

No Gaps in Achievement Gap Summit, by Kim Shipp

kshipp21.jpgIn an effort to try to describe my experience at the Achievement Gap Summit, I came up with a metaphor by asking myself, “What is the difference between a circus and a carnival?” 

A circus is where you sit and enjoy the performances, and everyone is usually experiencing the same thing, while a carnival is where you participate with the goal of having fun, and your experience can be as individual as your participation. So I would have to say that my experience at the Achievement Gap Summit was like that of being at a carnival.

There were lots of people in attendance (over four thousand, to be exact), over a hundred workshops to choose from, more than a half dozen keynote speakers, lots of meals and snacks, all in less than a 48-hour period. Needless to say there was little time for rest or sleeping. It was a festive atmosphere, and I can honestly say that who’s who in education in California, along with a few politicians, were in attendance.

If I had to give the conference a theme, it would be “The Spirit of Man vs. The Spirit of Race(ism).”  We saw the usual data on student achievement, and we heard about the need to examine practices on how students are assessed. There was a debate about whether the achievement gap was caused by internal factors, such as the lack of rigorous standards or segregation, or by external factors, such as health care for children; mobility rates and economics.

By evening on the first day, it seemed like the conversation turned from the outer causes of the achievement gap, such as policies, data, or the lack thereof, to the inner causes: What do we as human beings have within ourselves to impart the value of education to the children we are serving?

This soul searching mode began at dinner with Edward James Olmos, the famous actor. He implored everyone to look within themselves to help students to become successful. He said we must remember that we all are from one race and that is the human race. This message persisted throughout his presentation and left some noticeably uncomfortable and uneasy.

The first day’s events culminated with a captivating visual arts performance by a young man who entertained us by painting two huge portraits on stage right before our eyes. He told the story of how a teacher helped him take graffiti drawing into the classroom to become an animator. This presentation solidified what the evening’s speaker said about tapping into one’s spirit and gifts to help children succeed.

The theme continued the next day with keynote speaker Tavis Smiley, a national TV/Radio host who happens to be African-American. He told a story about going to an all-white school and his second grade teacher getting down on her knees before him and telling him that he would no longer choose failure, and that he had the capabilities to perform at the same level as his white classmates.

Smiley spoke of the need for educators to examine themselves to see if they were merely doing a job, or if this was their vocation and their calling from God. If not, he said, people need to consider doing something else.

Glenn Singleton, the founder and director of Pacific Educational Group and the author of Courageous Conversations About Race: Strategy for Achieving Equity in Schools, said that in order to close the achievement gap in public education, the educational agency must address the issue of institutional racism.  

Singleton said California is just beginning to come to grips with racism in education, and that he was ready to come home to help them to address it.

The conference ended with the student perspective. Two speakers recounted their struggles in public education and their perseverance to get into college, only to find themselves unprepared. They spoke of the need for more pre-collegiate programs to assist students in this endeavor.

By this time, of course, I had been on enough rides and had eaten enough popcorn (we really did have popcorn). I was ready to follow the others to our individual abodes to reflect on the feelings of hope and the despair that had surfaced during the last two days.

I guess, just like with a carnival, some of us had a tremendous amount of fun and excitement, while others may not have fared as well. Perhaps it was something they ate and could not stomach, or perhaps it was that last roller coaster ride that did them in.

I guess it all depends on who you ask. As for me, I had fun.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Caroline

    From other comments I’ve heard, the reason that Edward James Olmos’ speech left people uncomfortable and uneasy was that he’s an actor who had played a teacher. A lot of people were wondering why the teacher Olmos played, Jaime Escalante, wasn’t there instead. (Escalante was unable to replicate his “miracle” at his next place of employment and eventually moved back to his native country, Bolivia, reportedly discouraged and embittered — so he might not have been much of a motivational speaker.)

    I admire Tavis Smiley, but I have to say he truly doesn’t get it if he’s encouraging people with self-doubt to leave teaching. The most gifted teachers I know have experienced a lot of self-doubt, among other things because their job is so hard, so underappreciated and so low-paid, and they get beat up and blamed constantly for all the ills of society. It would do a severe disservice to children of all demographics if those teachers all went “oh, OK!” and took Smiley’s advice and changed careers.

  • Concerned Oakland Parent

    I have been reading the postings – on this blog, in the newspapers and on the Oakland Schools list serve. My child attends a school with a good reputation and she is receiving a good, not great education. Many students in the school are learning and many are not.

    I find myself becoming more and more frustrated and angry. Why are some students learning and some students not learning? Open Court requires that they all have the same lessons each day. How do I deal with the anger of the families whose children are not learning and the parents are sending their kids to school without adequate sleep, food, preparation? How do I as a concerned parent make up for what is missing, thus what holds back my child because other children cannot pay attention either because they haven’t started the day fueled (food) or rested or there on time?

    How do I support the teacher? How do I support the kids? Most of all, how can I make a difference when I see it getting worse every year and more and more time are spent helping the kids who are not prepared and less and less time on the kids who are prepared? What is equity? Is it equitable to put one teacher with the children in a very small class and put a very large class together of kids that are working ahead? Would it help?

    Does anyone offer suggestions other than the chanting and clapping at KIPP? Can low income students of color learn in an environment where there are expectations of punctuality, quiet behavior, breakfast in the morning, 9 hours of sleep? Can they learn in an environment where those qualities are not required? Do the ever-present helicopters and gunshots keep them awake? Would it help if the students had a refrigerator with low fat cheese sticks and fruit for a morning snack? I would gladly work with my neighborhood to make sure that happens if it would help. What works? And why can’t we do it in Oakland?

  • Oakland teacher

    To Concerned Parent: My son goes to school in Berkeley at a public school where food is a constant: Free breakfast for every child. Snacks throughout the day. Free (or cheap, if you don’t qualify) fresh lunch with an always available salad bar.

    Yes, it takes extra money and focus, but kids can have healthy food at school.

  • Caroline

    Berkeley’s food program has enormously more money to spend than nearby larger districts. Here in SFUSD we’re lobbying for the city to kick in money to improve the school food — after all, feeding the community’s children shouldn’t be a responsibility dumped on educators.