Advocates ask Modesto City Schools for more support for African American students

African American Community Members Press For Change

Jacque Wilson of Advocates for Justice and other community activists ask the Modesto City Schools Board to adopt 10 policy and administrative changes in support of African American youth. (Nan Austin/
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Jacque Wilson of Advocates for Justice and other community activists ask the Modesto City Schools Board to adopt 10 policy and administrative changes in support of African American youth. (Nan Austin/

African American community members, outraged by what they see as continuing bias against black children, have laid out a 10-point plan of action they would like to see Modesto City Schools adopt.

“An injustice for one is an injustice for all,” said Jacque Wilson, paraphrasing a Martin Luther King Jr. quote as he went over statistics showing African American students’ higher rates of suspensions in the district.

“With many African American teens, they feel as though not seeing many black faces in the teaching staff or administrative board is degrading, and in a sense it scares them,” Davis High School student Lanae Grier told the board at a contentious meeting earlier this month. “It scares me. I see none of you that look like me,” she said. “I feel as though we are being looked down upon.”

Grier is vice president of the Black Student Union at Davis, a group that several members rose to say makes them feel welcome and supported on campus. Creating more BSU clubs at Modesto’s high schools is Point 4 on the list, which covers more help for students getting in trouble, better training for school employees and administrative supports for African American parents and students.

“There is some merit to their ideas, and we are in the process of scheduling a meeting with the Wilsons and the NAACP to discuss the 10-point plan, programs we already have in place and what new things we can implement,” said Superintendent Pam Able via email.

Wilson, who with twin brother Jacq started the teen mentoring program Advocates for Justice, said they will meet with district staff Feb. 26. They also hope to bring the issues back before the board in February.

Their 10-point list asks the district to:

1. Create an office or task force on achievement, success and leadership for black students.

The district has a community outreach office that provides services and family nights, predominantly for Latino families that make up the majority of Modesto’s low-income population. It has also held events with the King-Kennedy Memorial Center.

The district formed the Dr. Parker Committee in 2002 specifically to address disparities facing African American students, focusing on low graduation rates, said committee member and longtime trustee Cindy Marks. But the committee expanded to serve all underrepresented students and has not been as visible.

“It’s a small committee now. We used to have a lot of administrators and others come to our meetings,” Marks said, adding that the role the group plays is still critical. “None of this can be done alone. It takes all of us working together to build trusted relationships.”

Graduation rates for Modesto’s African American students have risen but still fall below other ethnicities. For the Class of 2014, 73 percent of African American students graduated, compared with 88 percent of their white classmates and 82 percent of Latinos. They did, however, best the statewide African American average of 68 percent.

More discouraging is the number of 2014 graduates who have passed the classes required to enter California’s state universities: 22 percent of African American graduates met that mark in Modesto, compared with 42 percent of white graduates.

As for future graduates, the 2015 baseline state test results in math and English also show glaring disparities. Among Modesto students in third grade through eighth, 15 percent of African American students scored at or above grade level in English reading and writing, compared with 21 percent of Latinos and 40 percent of white students.

In math, 8 percent of African American, 12 percent of Latino and 28 percent of white students in Modesto City Schools hit the proficiency mark.

2. Target more resources for black students.

Asked for more specifics, the Wilson brothers said they wanted to see recruitment of African American teachers and counselors; targeted support for struggling students; and a greater push toward college and career courses.

For all students, they ask that social studies teachers consider ways to include the roles of blacks in history as part of districtwide curriculum, and that English teachers put more African American literature on the districtwide reading list and in the school libraries.

3. Have greater transparency and accountability regarding community-driven budgeting and state funding data.

The new state-funding formula includes more dollars meant to serve poor students, foster kids and English learners. African American speakers made it clear those funds should, in part, be funding services for their students.

In its elementary schools, 93 percent of Modesto’s African American children are poor, as are 70 percent of the African American teens in its high schools.

4. Fully staff and support Black Student Unions at each junior high and high school.

Only Davis High BSU members rose to speak at the board meeting, though the websites of Beyer, Enochs, Johansen and Modesto high schools all list active chapters. Speakers said BSUs are needed at all campuses to play a positive role in the lives of African American students. Extending the club to junior highs is a nod to research showing the middle school years are when most future dropouts begin their downward slide.

5. Have leadership days, training and career/educational trips for the district’s black students.

The Advocates for Justice program provides these. Its first year, the school district funded the program, but that was discontinued the second year. More recently, the district provided transportation for Bay Area trips by Advocates for Justice teens.

6. Have counselors and/or mentors for all students suspended two or more times.

Being able to match all students who need them with mentors is not always possible, said Ed Miller, director of discipline for the district.

“They get them into counseling any time they see a pattern, but I can’t say (it happens for) every kid who gets suspended,” Miller said.

“I support expanded counseling services for students who have been suspended,” said trustee Amy Neumann via email. She praised Miller’s efforts to work with families in developing plans to solve behavior issues.

“We also have a number of Restorative Justice programs operating throughout the district to help students make better decisions. Keeping these programs in place, expanding them where it is needed, and adequately staffing such programs is a priority,” Neumann wrote.

Suspensions and expulsions have dropped dramatically across Modesto City Schools, from 310 students expelled in 2008-09 to 16 last year. So far this school year, only three students have been expelled, none of them African American, by district data.

“We have made tremendous progress over the last five years, but know we can always improve,” said Able, who added, “School staff deserve thanks for recognizing the importance of this work and embracing the changes in how we handle discipline.”

Suspensions are also way down, but the percentage of African Americans suspended remains stubbornly higher than other groups. In the 2011-12 school year, Modesto suspended more than 1 in 5 of its African American students at least once, but about 1 in 9 of its Latino students and 1 in 12 of its white students. In 2014-15, those fell to around 1 in 7 African American students and around 1 in 18 Latino or white students.

A U.S. Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights advisory calls out such disparities, saying variations in the rates usually cannot be blamed on the kids.

“Research suggests that the substantial racial disparities of the kind reflected in the (discipline) data are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color,” the department notes.

More likely causes, it concludes, are unequal enforcement or how the regulations are interpreted. Both touch on the sensitive topic of implicit bias, those judgments people make without question, which is the next request of the Modesto community members.

7. Require implicit bias training for administrators, teachers, students and board members.

The district has given special training to its security team and school supervisors. Teacher trainings have focused more on academics this year, but Neumann said the idea has merit.

“I support increased training for administrators and teachers to deal with our diverse and changing student population,” she said, adding she would like to take the training. Other board members agreed.

“I personally feel like it would be a good idea. I think it would help me be a better board member,” said board Vice President Sue Zwahlen.

But new trustee John Walker said he took offense at several hours of speakers assuming that his white skin meant he had no experience of or understanding racism.

“My father of 40-plus years is African American and married my mother in Atlanta in the mid-1970s. I have his last name,” Walker wrote in an email. “As an 11-year-old white boy in Atlanta, Ga., with mixed race parents I did experience racism, had to learn about racism, and to this day it affects every decision I make.”

8. Have transparency and accountability regarding discipline data.

The state Department of Education gathers detailed statistics about discipline and race. But information it makes available online is generally a year behind and not sufficient to make clear comparisons by ethnicity. District information is more robust and up to date. The community group is asking the district to provide its data more readily to citizens or as board updates on a regular basis.

9. Create a position for a suspension/expulsion advocate.

Marks said she agreed with this point. “Every parent who has a student facing an expulsion should be given an opportunity to work with the school staff to understand the process and their alternatives,” she said.

10. Foster community collaboration.

“Meaningfully and deliberately engage black parents, students and community members in school and district decisions,” elaborated Jacque Wilson, giving some examples.

“Ensure that parents and guardians of black students are represented on parent advisory and school site councils. Actively solicit the input of black and diverse families when developing school and district plans,” he said.

Involving African American families is essential, Zwahlen said.

“My biggest concern is: We can talk forever about problems we see. I would like to see our community and our parents involved. Let’s all be a solution to the problem,” she said. The Second Cup of Coffee morning meetings at schools were a start, but volunteering in classrooms is where parents really get to understand how they can help their children, she said.

“It’s all about developing relationships and partnerships,” Zwahlen said.

Those relationships can be, need to be, transformational, Wilson said. “Build partnerships to change the narrative about black male students in Modesto City Schools,” he concluded.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin

Black history events

TUESDAY: The Kinsey Project, a presentation of African American history and culture, is at 7 p.m. at the Gallo Center for the Arts, sponsored by Modesto City Schools and the Stanislaus County Office of Education. Tickets are $5 and $10, available at

FEB. 9: Karlos Hill, history professor at Texas Tech University, will speak on “21st Century Lynching? Meditations on Modern-Day Police Shootings” from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at California State University, Stanislaus, Room 118 of the Faculty Development Center. The presentation will include a panel discussion with Frank Johnson, president of the Modesto-Stanislaus NAACP, and Trystan Cotten, Stan State professor of ethnic studies; and a question-and-answer session. The event is free.

FEB. 24: The Patterson Library will host a discussion of the PBS documentary “Slavery By Another Name” at 6 p.m. The film depicts the system of forced, unpaid labor that existed in America until World War II, and mostly affected African-American men in the South. This program will use clips from the film to spark a discussion of the history and evolution of American civil rights. The Created Equal film set and public programs have been made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, in partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.