Guest Commentary | Charter school needed to close achievement gap in Unit 4

Guest Commentary | Charter school needed to close achievement gap in Unit 4

By NATHANIEL BANKS

Fifty-two years ago this June, the Champaign High School graduating class of 1966 walked across the stage at the Assembly Hall. Among the students graduating was a young man from the "North End" of Champaign. He came from a working-class community where poverty was rampant, living conditions were poor and he and his people were separated by their race. There were a handful of middle-class families, but most were low-income with fathers heading them, often working several jobs to make ends meet.

The students graduating knew that the way to change their economic condition was through education. Therefore, it was highly valued.

Today, although not as guaranteed, that notion remains true. What children learn from grades K-12 sets their trajectory for life and determines their fate in the community and the fate of the community. So, schooling and what is supposed to come out of schooling is essential, especially for low- and middle-income students. In the last 52 years, studies have shown that a good education has helped poor and middle-income black people rise out of poverty and earn their way to the American Dream.

But how are the black children doing in school? According to the Champaign school district's figures, nearly 83 percent of black students graduate. This should indicate that they are on the trajectory for success in life. But the question is, do they graduate with skills for success in life?

One marker is the percentage of former students enrolled in post-secondary education but needing to take remediation courses before they can take college-level courses. According to district data, 64 percent of the students attending community colleges need to take remediation courses. That means that out of every 100 students graduating from Champaign schools and attending a community college, 64 of them do not have the skills needed to take college-level courses. So, they begin college with a deficit academically and financially as well.

Why? One need only to look at the latest academic achievement data for black children in grades 3-8. The state has five levels of test achievement. Categories 1-3 indicate students who are not on track for post-graduation success. Categories 4-5 indicate those who are.

Comparing the overall district report card with the state's shows the state and Champaign's scores in English language arts and mathematics are comparable. Across Illinois, based on English language arts, between 30 and 40 percent of students in grades 3-8 are on track for college or career readiness.

Across the state, that number for black students is 19.4 percent. In the Champaign schools, that number for black students is 10 percent.

Clearly stated, only 10 out of every 100 black children in grades 3-8 in the Champaign schools are on track for success in either college or a career. Fifty-two percent of the black children in the third grade can be found scoring at the lowest of the five levels of achievement.

In the Champaign schools, when it comes to successfully educating black children, "the emperor has no clothes."

Over the years, many attempts have been made to mitigate this reality, with only moderate success. Grades K-3 are especially critical for education success. District numbers show that in 2011, the percentage of black children in the lowest category for literacy statewide was 10.8 percent and in Unit 4, 15.1 percent. By 2017, those numbers have increased dramatically to 35 percent statewide and 52.1 percent in Champaign schools.

These numbers should alarm the community, but they don't. They should outrage the community, but they don't. For the few in the community who are outraged, one would think that their only answer is to double-down and do more of the same without substantially changing the culture producing these results.

I and many others believe the answer is rooted in how we teach black children. According to the 2017 report card, the Champaign district has a majority-minority student body: 37 percent white, 35 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic and 9 percent Asian. However, the district's staff is only 8 percent black — which creates significant cultural gaps of understanding.

Low- and middle-income public school parents in Champaign may feel that they have no hope and no options other than Unit 4. But work has been done on the state level to try and mitigate this life-and-death gap between black families and educational opportunities in their neighborhoods.

Fortunately, options are available through the state's charter-school legislation. Charter schools have been established to give parents and teachers and community members the financial wherewithal and legislative permission to establish educational institutions specifically designed to meet their unique needs. Charter schools have a distinct board of directors comprising a diverse group of individuals from the population served.

The legislation was written to empower teachers, parents and community members to develop schools with educational programs meeting the unique needs of their own students. Based on legislation, the state process for approving charters begins with the local school board. After receiving an application, the board must hold a hearing within 45 days on the proposed charter school and must vote 30 days after that.

The North Champaign Academy Charter Steering Committee, of which I am a part, is preparing a charter-school application to be submitted during Black History Month 2018. One question that the 3,500 black families in Champaign providing $35 million in tax dollars to the district through the per capita tuition charge of $11,236 might ask is, are their children getting their money's worth?

The data from the school report card clearly indicate that they are not.

Our proposal for a K-5 North End charter school will reflect our high expectations for our children, our acknowledgement that teachers and administrators must have not only the intellectual competence but the cultural competence to teach our targeted students as well. So, the academy hallmarks will include staff dedicated to excellence, a board of directors committed to guiding the various resources needed to create a high-level center of learning and a seamless connection between the academy, parents, services supporting them and the community institutions working to mitigate the affects of living in poverty.

Why a charter? Because it is literally the only alternative for low- and moderate-income families to substantially change the fortunes of this segment of our population. Champaign schools over the past 50 years, despite their best efforts, have consistently been unable to adequately graduate low- and middle-income black students with the academic and social wherewithal to launch themselves out of poverty and participate in their own destiny.

The status quo is unacceptable and beyond crisis.

Thankfully, the state of Illinois has made it possible for local groups like ours to meaningfully address the needs of our children. We want to engage the whole community in this discussion. But certainly, the community most negatively affected by this lingering condition must have the loudest voice in this matter. A North End charter school will not solve every issue with Unit 4, but it will provide a competitive metric under which the education of black children can be measured.

And, ultimately, the school can provide a concrete example of how to successfully provide a high-quality education for all the students, including low-income black students, the majority of whom will remain in Unit 4 for the foreseeable future.

Nathaniel Banks, who has two music education degrees from the University of Illinois, is the co-director of the Banks Bridgewater Lewis Fine Arts Academy.