State efforts to raise academic achievement of all students, especially African Americans, have resulted in a “false promise” because funding has not been sufficient, James Kelly testified Monday as the trial over education funding began its fourth week. Kelly, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, was one of three witnesses who testified about the challenges of educating African American and Latino students on Day 12 of the trial.

Kelly said a privately financed Urban League project called 1000 Hours of Reading, which focused on raising reading levels for struggling African American students in the Seattle, Renton and Federal Way school districts, brought 90 percent of the students up to grade level, with 60 percent reading one grade level above. The conclusions, he said, are that “additional resources help out tremendously” and that “we believe in the kids.”

Kelly indicated that greater achievements among African American students in particular would be seen with increased and sustained State funding. Better educated youths would result in fewer dropouts, less crime and less reliance on welfare, he said, drawing on his prior experiences as a child abuse investigator for Child Protective Services and the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, and as deputy assistant secretary for the Economic Services Administration in the Department of Social and Health Services. If not for his pursuit of education, he probably would have crossed over to the wrong side of the law, said Kelly, whose late mother did not go beyond the fifth grade.

He said several programs in the Seattle School District that were of particular benefit to black students, including homework centers and the African American Academy, lost State funding. “It’s frustrating,” Kelly said. “You see progress… All of a sudden funding is dried up and we were back to where we were before.”

Kelly said he agreed with “the goal but not the timetable” of many aspects of HB 2261, the new law that seeks to redefine basic education and change the school funding formula in Washington. The law contains no funding and gives the State until 2018 to implement the changes. The law is imperfect but “a good first step,” he said.

In related testimony, Erin Jones, assistant superintendent at the Center for the Improvement of Student Learning at the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, outlined a number of reasons why African American students in particular struggle to get through school. Questioned by NEWS attorney Edmund Robb, Jones answered many questions relating to HB 2772, a bill passed by the 2008 Legislature that called for an advisory committee to create a plan to close the achievement gap for African American students.

The advisory committee issued a report last December that called for improvements in teacher quality, teaching and learning, school and school district leadership, student support, and family and community engagement.

Jones said she did not like the term “achievement gap” because it placed the blame solely on students, and preferred “opportunity gap” instead. The gap is the result not just of the students, but of school systems, families and communities, she said. (That differed from Kelly’s view that the school bore the primary responsibility for a student’s achievement, or lack thereof.)

Drawing on the advisory committee’s findings for many of her answers, Jones said that achievement is increasing for all races in Washington, but at a slower rate for African Americans. The dropout rate for black students is about 50 percent for boys and above 30 percent for girls, compared with less than 30 percent for whites, she said. Of those African Americans who graduate, 48 percent start college but not all earn degrees, in part because so many have to take remedial courses.

Though blacks make up 6 percent of Washington’s population, they represent only 2 percent of gifted students but 16 percent of those in special education. Jones said many African American parents are unaware of gifted programs or how to work the system – she herself had to fight to get her gifted son into a program – and that black students are stereotyped as not capable. Some teachers refer gregarious African American boys to special education programs based on their behavior, not their intellect, she said.

Jones said the advisory committee found that black students have the lowest percentage of experienced teachers and the highest percentage of less-experienced ones, as well as the largest percentage of educators who are teaching outside their area of expertise. Inequitable and insufficient funding were found as well, both between and within school districts. “The data clearly shows that African Americans (tend to attend) poorer schools with less resources” in athletics, arts and technology, among other areas, Jones said.

Black students aren’t encouraged to get into Advanced Placement or honors courses, she said. “If you have intelligent, savvy kids (in remedial classes) and they’re African American, they disengage. They get C’s. They can get A’s, but why bother?” African American students see few role models in education because so many black teachers are last in, first out, during tough economic times and also get passed over for administrative jobs, Jones said.

Roberto Maestas, founder of El Centro de la Raza, a Seattle social service agency primarily for Latinos, told the court about growing up in a small village in northern New Mexico and becoming the first member of his family to graduate from high school. He became active in the farm workers and civil rights movements, which led to the occupation of the abandoned Beacon Hill Elementary School in 1972 that eventually became the home for the agency.

“Education is the great equalizer. It levels the playing field,” Maestas said. He talked about the José Martí Child Development Center at the agency and its goal of helping children become valuable members of society, “regardless of their condition.”

In Washington’s schools, the achievement gap is the major issue and lack of resources is “the biggest problem,” Maestas said. “Not only resources – If you do not have resources and personnel, everything falls by the wayside.”

Under questioning by Senior Assistant State Attorney Carrie Bashaw, Maestas said his agency received between $2.5 million and $2.75 million from the State for capital improvements over the past four or five years.

The State’s paramount duty, mandated by its constitution, is to amply provide for the education of all children, Maestas said. That will “develop the highest potential” of Washington’s children, he said, but until the State fulfills its duty, “we don’t know what the results could be.”

Coming up on Tuesday: Mary Jean Ryan, chair of the Washington State Board of Education, will resume her testimony from last Thursday. Edmonds School District Superintendent Nick Brossoit also will testify.

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