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Debating the achievement gap

Over 200 people attended a forum on Oakland public education on Feb. 20, 2008 in Lisser Hall. Panelists sought to give wider exposure to the problems schools face.

Local radio station KALW broadcasted the event, with host Rose A guilar interviewing leaders of public education reform, such as Russlyn Ali from Education Trust-West and San Francisco Board of Education President Mark Sanchez.

According to the panelists, one major problem in Oakland schools is the high drop out rate.

40-50 percent of black and Latino students in the nation do not finish school but because there is no data system to track the student drop-out rate, schools self-report and underestimate this rate, according to Sanchez.

Former superintendent of education and visiting Mills Professor Delaine Eastin said that when she visited a school in Compton, the freshman class was 800 and the senior class was 200, but the reported drop-out rate was eight percent.

A high drop-out rate favors a test-based system, according to Sanchez. “Because of Academic Progress Index (API) [the schools] would rather have those students drop out than to stay in school and do badly on tests,” he said.

Olis Simmons of Youth Uprising, an Oakland empowerment center for youth, said the achievement gap and the high drop-out rate can be attributed to a lack of basic resources. This affects student behavior in school. “You don’t have a funky attitude, you’re just hungry,” she said, to murmurs of agreement from the audience.

Racism was a common theme for the panelists and the audience. Ronnisha Johnson, a senior at San Francisco’s Phillip Sala Burton High School, commented on how racism affects students’ self-perception. “A lot of the achievement gap has to do with internalized oppression.that ‘because I’m black, I’m ignorant.'”

Simmons also emphasized the significance of racism. “If we are to engage as citizens we need to have an honest conversation about resource allocation, and about race and disenfranchisement in the classroom,” she said.

High school students in the audience expressed a need for quality teaching and engaged, motivated teachers. According to Johnson, current teachers “teach us how to obey more than critically think.”

Quinceton Mosely, a 21-year-old working with Youth Radio, agreed. He said he dropped out of high school when he was 17, and said he realized the reason why during the forum.

“When I was little, teachers would always ask the class what we wanted to be when we grew up,” he said. “But as we got older, they stopped asking.”

“People need a dream.. Not just sitting down reading from one page to the next in a textbook,” he added.

The forum was organized through KALW’s Holly Kernan and her public radio reporting class at Mills College. Thea Croman, Class of 2007, coordinated and produced the program.

Kernan organized carpools to help get Oakland high school students to campus. She hoped for 100 people, and was happy that the turnout was double, although she wished that more Mills students had attended.

Freshwoman Victoria Chetty did attend. She said that she was most intrigued by the students’ perceptions. “My parents are middle-class, and I never realized how many other African Americans don’t have that privilege, so it was really eye-opening,” she said.

“It’s a good thing that they had this dialogue,” she added.