A year ago, the Oakland Unified School District entered an agreement with federal civil rights officials to reduce the number of suspensions of African-American students in Oakland schools and eradicate bias in discipline.
The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights had found that African American students were subject to racial discrimination in discipline practices in that they were suspended much more frequently than their white and Asian schoolmates. Although African American students made up one-third of the OUSD student population, they were two-thirds of the students suspended, in 2011-2012. In fact, suspensions were used so casually and frequently, that one in three African-American middle school boys had experienced suspension that year.
Oakland schools have made great strides in changing these outcomes in the year since the district signed its agreement with the Department of Education Civil Rights office. Led by the chief of its African American Male Achievement office, Chris Chatmon, who reported these compliance gains to the board of education this week, the effort has reduced suspensions by 25 percent with some schools ending their use altogether.
In their place have come Restorative Justice programs in which students discuss conflict and make restitution for offenses. Teachers and principals have received new training. Meanwhile, African-American students on average have been doing better academically, increasing their grade point averages, Chatmon said.
Progress has been substantial. “Improving the outcomes and opportunities for African-American males has been at the forefront of our district since 2010,” Chatmon told the board.
Yet all of this was done without a dime spent by OUSD.
The African American Male Achievement program is completely through the philanthropy of nearby businesses and foundations ever since it was set up two years ago.
The restorative justice programs are supported by the Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth program, which in turn is funded by the City of Oakland’s Measure Y and philanthropists.
Wednesday, the board of education took up a measure to fund its work to comply with the civil rights voluntary resolution with a $700,000 appropriation. “We are entering year two of the agreement and to date there is no line item budget investment in this work, in effect making it an unfunded mandate,” said acting superintendent Gary Yee, who proposed the funding.
The Board voted unanimously to approve spending $700,000 this year to establish an infrastructure to do what OUSD promised it would do. The money will be spent on building district-wide systems, such as school discipline guides for students and parents, resource tool kits for teachers, and data systems to track how discipline happens in classrooms and track accountability to the agreement. A big chunk of it also will be used on staff training.
The question is whether $700,000 is even enough and why is OUSD so late in putting its own investment in this.
“I want to remind you what is at stake here,” said Fania Davis, executive director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. She said not only is compliance at stake but a “moral obligation that we in this district are very clear about eradicating discrimination,” because its youth are at stake. “The whole nation is watching” what Oakland does, she said. She also said that $700,000 could be spent very fast and suggests “this is really just not that important,” to the board.
Kim Shipp, an educational consultant in Oakland, held up a copy of the now famous book, “The New Jim Crow,” in which author Michelle Alexander talks about a school-to-prison pipeline in the United States in which underfunded schools that rely too much on suspensions for discipline are grooming students for prison by taking them away from their education.