African American Parents Raise Voices to Help Black Students Achieve

Parent Tunette Powell Testified In Favor of McKenna’s resolution but successfully pushed for more parent input.

Parent Tunette Powell Testified In Favor of McKenna’s resolution but successfully pushed for more parent input.

African American parents and students raised their voices at the LAUSD Board meeting Tuesday in support of resolutions that passed unanimously to boost the academic achievement of African American students and to consider giving students age 16 and above the right to vote in school board elections.   

Speak UP parent Tunette Powell, an educator from South Los Angeles and mom to three Black boys, advocated for the resolution from board members George McKenna (BD1) and Kelly Gonez (BD6) to help close the academic opportunity and achievement gap for African American students. But Powell described the problem as an “education debt” and urged the board to provide the financial, staff and policy investments needed to make it work.

“This nation took from African Americans and has not given back or made the direct investments necessary,” Powell said. “If we want to do something different and change the tide, as a district we will have to admit and accept the debt, and begin making investments to pay the debt off.”

Only 32 percent of African American students met or exceeded standards in English Language Arts last year, and only 20 percent in math, compared to 42 percent in English and 32 percent in math for all other student groups. African American students are disproportionately identified for special education services and are under-represented in gifted and talented programs. African American students also receive 26 percent of all suspensions, even though they make up just 8 percent of the student population.

The resolution calls for a five-year action plan with “academic and social emotional supports” to lift achievement for African American students. Several speakers urged the board to add teeth to the resolution with more specific outcome benchmarks and oversight.

“I am concerned about the implementation,” Powell said. “I’m left wondering how we will measure the success of our efforts over the next five years. I’m concerned that we won’t invest enough money. I’m concerned by how much people power we will put into it, and I am concerned, honestly, that this resolution will be a good idea that gets lost in meetings, and gets lost in the formation of committees that have no power.”

While the resolution calls for each of the six Local Districts to establish an African American Family Group, Powell urged the board to give parents a greater role in the process. “As a parent, I can’t afford to look back in 2023 and say, ‘and still, we are not saved.’ I’m hoping that you will not only include us, but that you will privilege our perspectives. Because for us, this is not politics, it’s not business. It is our babies. It’s our lives. It’s our futures.” 

After hearing the speakers, McKenna amended the resolution to give parents more input.

Board President Monica Garcia (BD2) praised the resolution but urged the superintendent to include more in the plan than just resources, which on their own won’t create the intended change, she said. 

“It’s not just about money,” Garcia said. “It’s about letting the people who know what to do, do what they know. It’s about asking all partners – I don’t know if we need our own pilot school, a side letter with the union, different relationships with employees, with the state, but I know that there is so much suffering that is caused because good intentions don’t create the outcomes we deserve... When we have 7 percent proficiency [at a school], we have the data that tells us we could do much, much better. Something different has to be done. Structural changes need to happen.”

Student Board Member Tyler Okeke (left) authored the resolution to explore expanding school board voting rights to students age 16 and up.

Student Board Member Tyler Okeke (left) authored the resolution to explore expanding school board voting rights to students age 16 and up.

Student Board Member Tyler Okeke also successfully overcame skepticism from board members Richard Vladovic (BD7) and McKenna to unanimously pass a resolution directing the superintendent to study the feasibility of a ballot measure giving students age 16 and above the right to vote in school board elections.

Such a move could have a significant impact on elections, and Vladovic said he was concerned that teachers would have an undue influence on their students. Okeke assured him that high school students like to think for themselves. “We look for our own path,” he said.

Several LAUSD students also made an impassioned case that they could handle the responsibility, pointing out that many students work, pay taxes, drive and shoulder adult roles such as caring for siblings. Students also argued that they are more affected by the board’s decisions than anyone else and deserve to have a voice in the process.

“Our schools have been consistently under-funded, and we do not have resources necessary to succeed,” said Makailah Jenkins, 17, a junior at George Washington Prep High School, who has to take one of her Advanced Placement classes online. “Currently, I am taking an AP U.S. History course, and I do not have a teacher in my classroom.  If I were allowed to vote, I could directly support school funding initiatives like Measure EE…We have just as much of a stake in the game as our adult counterparts. We deserve a seat at the table.”

Board Vice President Nick Melvoin (BD4) attempted to amend the resolution to study the feasibility of allowing non-citizen parents of kids in L.A. schools to vote in school board elections. San Francisco recently implemented such a change. Melvoin withdrew his amendment to avoid muddying the waters on Okeke’s resolution, but he said he’d work on a separate resolution to explore expanding the school board franchise to non-citizens in the future.

“Once you get this vote, vote,” Melvoin urged the students. “It’s a misnomer that we live in a democracy [with] rule of the majority. It’s rule of the majority who participate.”

In other news at the meeting: 

·   The LAUSD Board voted unanimously to create an Independent Taxpayer Oversight Committee for Measure EE parcel tax funds.

·   The board voted to allocate $15 million to sample water at all school drinking fountains and lower lead levels in LAUSD from 15 parts per billion to 5 ppb, starting with schools that serve the youngest kids first. LAUSD also will install water bottle filling stations where needed. Speak UP has been pushing the district to bring lead levels down to zero and to more proactively inform parents when water is tainted.