Black community unites to raise student achievement

By Ryan Quinn, Staff writer

Hundreds of African-Americans gathered at First Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Day Monday to consider how to improve the persistently low achievement that has plagued black Kanawha County students, especially on the West Side of Charleston.

Of Kanawha’s more than 26,000 students, only about 12 percent are black, but they account for more than a fifth of all out-of-school suspensions and more than a quarter of all in-school suspensions, according to data distributed at the event, “Rediscovering the Dream and Ending the Nightmare.” It was sponsored by First Baptist, Grace Bible Church, Ferguson Memorial Baptist Church and Abundant Life Ministries.

The event, which also included people of other races, began with a rousing church service imbued with King’s words, featuring a sermon in which First Baptist pastor the Rev. Paul Dunn argued there’s still a spiritual water crisis in the community — something that’s depressing standardized test scores, deteriorating families and causing students to be gunned down.

Only one in four black students in Kanawha are proficient in reading, and only one in five are proficient in math, according to the data at the event. State standardized testing proficiency rates dropped at three West Side schools — Stonewall Jackson Middle and Grandview and Mary C. Snow West Side elementaries — from the 2012-13 school year to last school year. There is no data yet available on the last West Side school, the new Edgewood Elementary, but one of the two schools that was consolidated to create it also saw its scores drop.

Dunn listed Tymel McKinney alongside the names of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, two unarmed black youths from other states whose shooting deaths by men of other skin colors led to national protests and discussions of race. McKinney was an 18-year-old black youth shot to death by another 18-year-old African-American, while McKinney was sitting on his porch at his West Side home.

“There’s something running through the city that isn’t right,” Dunn said.

The reverend said community members need to find a way to solve the problems black students face on their own and in their churches, rather than just seeking out politicians’ help. But Grace Bible pastor the Rev. Matthew Watts, while stressing the importance of community involvement, told the Gazette he still has a request for politicians. He wants them to find funding for a previously approved pilot project that seeks to help West Side schools and the surrounding community.

“We would like to see the governor and the Legislature agree to allocate some resources for this pilot project,” Watts told the Gazette. “We know that the budget is tight, but budgets reflect priorities.”

The program, which Kanawha schools Superintendent Ron Duerring said the district and community began working on in the summer of 2013, waives certain state education policies to allow school uniforms, stricter policies on student tardiness, teacher-specific professional development and other initiatives in the four West Side schools.

Watts noted that the Legislature passed laws to create the pilot program, and the governor signed off on it, but the legislation doesn’t provide any funding. The reverend said Monday’s event — which featured a town hall meeting with all-black education leaders as panelists — was the biggest gathering he’s seen on a single issue, and he hopes it can unite African-Americans behind a push for long-needed change to long-seen problems.

“This is the first time this thing has percolated to the top of the agenda for the community,” Watts said.

The problems contributing to low achievement among black students are numerous and may be bigger than the schools can handle on their own, according to speakers on the panel. Watts moderated the panel to the attendees who poured in from the sanctuary after the service, filling up every seat in the room.

Jessica Austin, who’s been principal of Stonewall Jackson Middle School on the West Side for two years and taught there for five and a half years, said poor black students were under-performing poor whites. She said she didn’t know why.

“If you could figure that question out, we’d love to know it,” Austin told the Gazette. She noted that crime is a big issue on the West Side, and sometimes black students appear more concerned with fitting in with their peers involved in criminal activities than seeking out success.

“It’s not cool to excel in school for a lot of these students,” she said.

Watts, who said only 14 percent of black children on the West Side live in a home with their mother and father, said the concentrated, urban poverty that black students in the area face — a poverty that involves high rates of drug trafficking, child abuse, domestic violence and violence in general — is different from the rural poverty many whites face in, for instance, eastern Kanawha.

“There’s no place in West Virginia like the West Side, where you’ve got so many people living in such a small place with all the negative pathologies that place has,” he said.

Capital High School Principal Clinton H. Giles said it’s difficult to explain why some students are afraid to let others know that they are intelligent.

“I tell students all the time you don’t want to be the biggest baller on the block, you want to be in the corporate boardroom,” Giles said.

State school board member Bill White urged African-Americans to organize and show up more at government meetings. Otherwise, he said, policy makers won’t pay attention.

“We represent 3 percent of the population in this state,” White said. “You’re invisible folks, you are invisible to most of the agencies in this state.“

Watts encouraged attendees to come to a town hall on the community schools pilot program Feb. 9 at Mary C. Snow.

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