Racially divided school talks reheat fight over how to close achievement gap
As the uproar over racially divided assemblies at Mt. Diablo High School flared last week, Ammar Saheli felt waves of disappointment swell in his chest.
As an African-American vice principal at the Concord high school last year, Saheli conceived of the meetings not as a way to divide the campus but to inspire black students whom he regularly saw filling the expulsion lists, failing classes and scoring near the bottom on state tests.
"It was time for all of the African-American students on the campus of Mt. Diablo High School to come together for a conversation," Saheli said.
The inaugural assembly opened with a group of girls dancing to hip-hop and a solo performance of the school's anthem. Saheli, his rich voice honed by five years as a preacher at a West Oakland church, followed with PowerPoint slides showing the grades, graduation rates and test scores for African-American students.
At the time, they scored lower than any other race at the school on the state's achievement index. Saheli encouraged them to try harder and take school seriously for their own sake.
"There comes a time you're going to make a decision whether you're going to try and do something to intervene, or whether you're going to continue to let it happen," Saheli said.
Students buzzed about the inspirational talk, said Principal Bev Hansen. Soon, the school replicated motivational assemblies for other racial groups among the school's 1,600 students. Spread throughout the year, the meetings drew no attention from the news media and only one parent complaint, Hansen said.
Most important, test scores rose: Black students bumped up their academic performance index score by 61 points on a 1,000-point scale, Latinos by 50 points and white students by 46 points.
This year, Hansen revived the assemblies for African-American, Asian, Filipino, Latino, Pacific Islander and white students, but suddenly found herself and the school under fire. Critics said no matter what the intention, the racially divided meetings invoked the specter of segregation.
"I definitely get the intent. But I worry about the messages being sent," said Russlynn Ali, the African-American director of Education Trust-West, an Oakland education nonprofit advocacy group whose aim is to close the achievement gap.
"There's a fine line between embracing race and culture and alienating other races and cultures in the process," said Ali.
California High School in San Ramon held similar assemblies in the spring but only for Latino and black students. After mixed reactions, San Ramon Valley school district administrators decided not to continue the talks this year, said Terry Koehne, the district spokesman.
"I think that we decided and understood through hindsight that while the intentions of that kind of a forum are noble, and our goal is to get every student to be proficient, that might not be the best way to go about motivating students," Koehne said. "It's something in hindsight we wouldn't do again."
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