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California's Black Educators Come Together to Make a Difference for African-American Students

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At annual conference focused on closing the achievement gap by addressing institutional discrimination and other barriers

Sacramento -- Informative townhall meetings, close encounters between political powerbrokers and the best minds in education, and a unifying goal of brightening the future for Black students throughout the state were just some of the highlights of the fifth annual conference of the California Association of African-American Superintendents and Administrators (CAAASA).

This year’s conference drew some 400 educators, parents and other stakeholders to the Sacramento Sheraton Grand Hotel, located a stone’s throw from the places where state education policies are made and budgets are set.

While there, conference attendees were offered a wealth of opportunities, CAAASA executive director Dwight Bonds expressed the conference was meant to, “align common goals and interests in an effort to create a unified voice to address the inequities in education for African-American students and professional growth opportunities for African-American teachers and administrators.”

Indeed, both the political obstacles and opportunities for educating Black children were dominant themes of the three-day gathering, as members of CAAASA met in the shadow of the State Capitol. The White House dispatched Seth Galanter, the U.S. Department of Education’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights, to discuss how the Obama administration is handling what many Black educators see as a growing problem: the disproportionate discipline meted out to African-American students in the nation’s public schools.

In a candid, frequently stirring presentation, Galanter invoked the tragedy of slain teenager Trayvon Martin to illustrate the hazards of over-disciplining Black students and denying them the opportunity to remain in safe learning environments. He cited data showing that African-American students are 3.5 times more likely than their White counterparts to be suspended or expelled. In the last four years, his office has received about 8,000 complaints about racial discrimination, about a quarter of which were related to discipline.

Without speaking on the ongoing criminal proceedings involving Martin’s killing last year, Galanter suggested that his tragic death could serve as a wake-up call for educators across the U.S. to reassess the effects of school discipline on the lives of African-American children.

“From press reports, we know that Trayvon had been suspended three times -- once for truancy,” said Galanter, noting the tragic irony in that disciplinary action, and drawing gasps from an audience of educators who have committed to push for system reforms. “We've got to keep our kids in school. We have to recognize that pushing our kids out of school can not only be physically dangerous, but dangerous to their educational achievement.”

As much as politics can sometimes act as a barrier to best practices in education, there also exist many opportunities within the political process; the California Department of Education was among the sponsors of the conference, putting their considerable weight behind workshops and other presentations meant to emphasize professional development and create dialogue about the academic, social and policy tools necessary to boost Black student achievement.

This year, much of CAAASA’s agenda was spurred by excitement over President Obama’s executive order, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, which calls for “improving educational outcomes for African Americans of all ages ... to help ensure that all African Americans receive an education that properly prepares them for college, productive careers, and satisfying lives.”

Said CAAASA president-elect Dr. Judy D. White, superintendent of the Moreno Valley Unified School District: “Let us together design the tools and processes that lead to closing the achievement gap. We need you to answer the call of the sounding of the alarm, ensure the civil rights of our youth, and most importantly, incite the moral obligation to educate the students of African-American descent.”

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