Home Education Policy Why Black parents started their own parallel school board

Why Black parents started their own parallel school board

At a community meeting in 2008, Carl Pinkston watched parent after parent stand up to say that whenever they brought their concerns to the school board, they were not being heard. So he and others got together to start a Black Parallel School Board — a place where parents could express themselves and organize together to improve education for Black students.

The organization has made small, but significant changes in schools, like getting posters of Black role models on the walls. It’s also involved in bigger changes, pushing to remove police officers from schools and to stop discipline practices that disproportionately target Black students. Recently, the organization sued the state over this. This week we look at how this organization began, and why Black parents felt it was needed.

Transcript:

Anne Vasquez:

Welcome to Education Beat. I’m Anne Vasquez executive director at EdSource. About a month ago, a lawsuit was filed against the California Department of Education. It alleges that disciplinary practices in schools throughout the state unfairly impact black and Latino students. The lawsuit says the state has data that show the disparities, but hasn’t done enough to make meaningful change.

Carl Pinkston:

At the end of the day, someone or something has to hold these districts accountable because our black and brown students are not doing well.

Anne Vasquez:

California and superintendent of public instruction Tony Thurman say they’re committed to addressing this issue and defining ways to reduce suspensions that disproportionately affect students of color. The group that filed the lawsuit has an unexpected name. The Black Parallel School Board. EdSource decided to dig a little into the backstory of the group that’s based in Sacramento. How did the organization begin? And why did the community feel it was necessary? Here is this week’s Education Beat with host Zaidee Stavely.

Zaidee Stavely:

In 2007, an organization called The Sacramento Area Black Caucus held a big community forum to discuss issues the city’s black children were facing in schools. The group had done focus groups and research and pulled together a report on test scores, graduation and dropout rates. The meeting was packed mostly with parents who lined up to speak. But Carl Pinkston the education chair of the organization notice they weren’t really interested in the report. Instead, they wanted to talk about the experiences they’d had when they’d taken their own concerns to the school board.

Carl Pinkston:

It was like, when I go to a school board meeting, I’m only given two minutes to tell my story. I can’t tell what’s happening in school and what’s happening with my child in two minutes. Number two, they don’t even look at me. They don’t even have a conversation with me to try to help me ask a follow-up question about what’s going on. And number three, there’s no one that comes up afterwards after I spoke and says how can I help you and work you through this problem?

Zaidee Stavely:

As Carl sat there, listening something became painfully clear to him.

Carl Pinkston:

The frustration, the anger, the disrespect. They wanted to be able to tell their story and have someone help them, to help them resolve their issue. And they wanted a place where they can talk. And what happens is all too often, education experts want to lecture to parents. To tell parents there’s something wrong with parents.

Zaidee Stavely:

These parents had gone to the school board for help. And instead they felt they were being told that the problems their kids were facing in school were their fault.

Carl Pinkston:

There’s like a war on parents and particularly black and brown parents. The argument is that the reason why your child is not doing well is because there’s something wrong with you.

Zaidee Stavely:

Carl came away from that meeting, feeling like something needed to change. The school board clearly wasn’t meeting the needs of black parents and their children.

Carl Pinkston:

Parents just simply want to have a space to talk. Once they talk, they want to know that someone’s going to honor their words and to be able to follow up and to resolve the issue.

Zaidee Stavely:

This is Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools. I’m Zaidee Stavely. This week, how black parents started their own parallel school board.

New Speaker:

After the outpouring of frustration Carl heard at the community forum, he began to wonder, what if there was somewhere black parents could go where they wouldn’t be ignored or blamed? Somewhere their problems would actually be addressed? He remembered hearing somewhere about a group that tried to achieve something similar decades ago in Oakland. So he asked a friend to look it up. Here’s what they found about.

Carl Pinkston:

Back in 1969 in Oakland, California, the black Panther party, NAACP, a number of black organization was very upset with the Oakland Unified School District. So they got together and decided they were going to create a parallel school board. They actually had their own superintendent. They had their own department of budgeting and curriculum. And it was literally a parallel district.

Zaidee Stavely:

Carl was inspired. So in 2008, he and others started the Black Parallel School Board in the Sacramento City Unified School District. The name is a nod to the former Oakland organization, but it’s not a school board per se. Rather its purpose is to do whatever it can to support and advocate for black students and their parents. Today it has about 300 members, parents, grandparents, and community activists. They hold monthly meetings at a Methodist church and their philosophy is listen first.

Carl Pinkston:

In the Sacramento City Unified School District, they will say, hey, there’s a problem. Let’s have a conference. Let’s bring in experts and we’ll teach these parents what they need to know. We have a philosophy is that we listen first and then we empower parents to become advocates second. We listen first because they have a powerful story to tell. Their pain, their anguish, and let them know that they’re not alone. You’re not isolated.

Zaidee Stavely:

EdSource reporter Diana Lambert wrote a story about the Black Parallel School Board. Hi Diana, what made you want to write this story about the Black Parallel School Board?

Diana Lambert:

Well, I’ve been aware of the Black Parallel School Board since they started in 2008. And I know some of the work that they’ve done and when I saw that they had filed a lawsuit against the state saying that there was disproportionate amount of African-American kids and Latino kids disciplined in schools, I thought it would be great to learn a little more about them and to write a feature story about them.

Zaidee Stavely:

How important is this organization and what really stands out to you about them?

Diana Lambert:

Well, I think this organization’s is important because it advocates for parents and their children. And it also teaches parents to advocate for themselves. And that’s really important in the African-American community, but in all communities, because education is a very complicated system. And these parents don’t understand how the school system works. And this organization teaches them what all the weird acronyms mean and how to advocate for their kids. And they also accompany them into these meetings and help them advocate until they can do it themselves.

Zaidee Stavely:

The organization offers learning sessions on topics requested by parents. What are your parental rights in the school system. How to ensure your child gets the services they need. How to read a school budget. What a school board does. And how parents can get involved in different committees that make decisions at their kids’ school. The Black Parallel School Board also goes along with parents to meetings with principals and teachers to help them advocate for their kids. From there parents often go on to become organizers themselves.

Carl Pinkston:

What we do is we provide the support and what the parents need, but you know, really move that to they becoming parent organizers so they can help other parents. And that’s what we describe as parent power.

Zaidee Stavely:

For her article, Diana talked with some parents who started out asking the Black Parallel School Board for help and later became members and organizers themselves.

Diana Lambert:

LaShanya Breazell was one of those parents. She showed up for the initial meeting and she wanted to talk about what she saw as the failing of the educational system with her child. And she ended up becoming one of the members of the executive committee. And one of the things she did that was sort of outstanding is she showed up at every school board meeting for 16 months and asked the school board to put computers in every single classroom, something they had promised in one of their budgets and then failed to do. So they did do it after 16 months and now they have computers in each classroom.

Zaidee Stavely:

There are some other things that you mentioned in your article that might even seem small to some people, but for example, the success that the Black Parallel School Board had in one school just putting up posters of black people on the walls.

Diana Lambert:

Yeah, it was a small thing, but really important. They went into a school, 60% African American students, and all the posters of scientists and educators and astronomers, they’re all white. And so they requested simply that they add some black faces to the wall so that the kids can see people that look like them and have something to aspire to.

Zaidee Stavely:

The Black Parallel School Board doesn’t just help make changes in individual schools. They also take on district issues, some with statewide importance.

Diana Lambert:

They’ve had a lot of influence. One of the major things they did in 2018 was they worked with a bunch of other community organizations to remove the police officers from the campuses. And then they had a big part then in putting together a restorative justice program where students make amends and do other things to make up for the things that they’ve done instead of being suspended or expelled from school.

Zaidee Stavely:

One of the things that Carl said to me was that, you know, it’s not like there were always police officers or security officers on campuses. That’s actually a relatively new thing.

Carl Pinkston:

They didn’t always exist. When I went to school, I went to Sacramento high school. We didn’t have a school resource officer. SROs in policing is connected to the whole notion of zero tolerance and the whole notion that students are behavioral deficient and they must be policed. And part of that is reflected in the general society, how they view black and brown kids. And so wherever there’s a high concentration of black and brown kids, there’s policing. Period.

Zaidee Stavely:

Carl says having police on campus does not equal safety.

Carl Pinkston:

They get reinforced out of the notion of mass shootings. Now we know in Columbine and Parkland, they had an SRO, and it didn’t stop the shooters. But their notion of school safety is equal to policing. We raised the question is that, school policing does not necessarily mean that it’s going to make the school more safe. It will suspend and expel them and send more students to the prison, but it will not make it to school more safe. What would make the school more safe is preventive measures. So if you have counselors, support services, quality education, all of that in place, you will not have the need to have SROs. You will simply have a very positive educational environment and a positive experience. And when I say prevention, they need to look at education as an environment where students learn restorative practice and learn it early. And it becomes incorporated as part of how you do conflict mediation.

Zaidee Stavely:

The Black Parallel School Board doesn’t limit its work to Sacramento schools. They’ve also worked with organizations in the Central Valley. Last year they worked with a statewide coalition to support parents in Oakland and another organization, the Black Organizing Project to get the Oakland Unified School District to eliminate their school police department and reinvest the $6 million budget in a new safety plan, including more student support services like counselors and academic mentors. This is a big deal.

Carl Pinkston:

That was huge. It was huge. It was statewide collective effort and support. And it made me felt back in the seventies when we had national movements and everybody put all the resources in one area to support. And it was really exciting, a joy, and a learning experience because now I can take that to others and say, this is what re-imagining school safety plan should look like in terms of people’s plans. This is how you do movement building work. This is how you do this type of work in the area of education and to be a success.

Zaidee Stavely:

One of the biggest issues that the Black Parallel School Board has taken on is disproportionate discipline. So Diana, what do the suspension numbers look like? How disparate is the discipline that we’re talking about.

Diana Lambert:

California Department of Education numbers show that black students are about three times more likely to be suspended than white students. And of those suspended 35% were suspended multiple times. Compared to 26% of Latino and white students.

Zaidee Stavely:

I asked Carl why disproportionate suspensions are such a big deal, why they matter. And his answer was clear.

Carl Pinkston:

It has a traumatic impact on students.

Zaidee Stavely:

Carl says has a few years ago, the Black Parallel School Board set up a panel with people who had been incarcerated to get their perspectives on what led to their imprisonment.

Carl Pinkston:

All of them say there is a direct correlation between their suspension and ending up into the prison system. One, it doesn’t work. It makes them even more angry. It has a traumatic impact. It demeans them to simply say, I’m not worthy to be in a school. So therefore I should do something. Second when they’re at home, they’re bored. So they go out in the street and go hang out and get into trouble. Three, most of them had problems early on with their education in the sense that every last one of them had literacy problems.

Zaidee Stavely:

A report from the University of California at Santa Barbara and the UCLA Civil Rights Project found that more suspensions lead to lower graduation rates, lower tax revenues, and higher taxpayer costs for criminal justice, welfare, and health care. The Black Parallel School Board has worked on this issue in many different ways. They’ve gone with parents to meetings with principals to advocate for alternative forms of discipline for specific students. As we mentioned earlier, they’ve worked to remove police officers in schools and replace them with counselors and other supports to help prevent problems before they begin. And they’ve pushed, along with other groups, for legislation to restrict suspensions for willful defiance. That’s a term used to suspend students who refuse to do what teachers or administrators said, taking off their hat in class, for example. Advocates say the term is vague and it’s disproportionately applied to black and Latino students. California passed legislation in 2019 that bars schools from suspending students in elementary through middle school for willful defiance. But some parents and advocates say districts are still finding ways to get around these bans and suspend students.

Carl Pinkston:

We created as many guardrails we possibly can in terms of statewide legislative policy. But at the end of the day, someone or something has to hold these district accountable because our black and brown students are not doing well. There’s been a lot statewide in terms of ethnic studies, in terms of teachers credentialing, there’s been a lot of work, but my parents tell us Carl it don’t mean nothing. Cause I don’t see it. They’re still doing the same thing. At the end of the day I think the parents, all they want is to hold these districts accountable.

Zaidee Stavely:

Parents from Kern county, from Turlock, from Hanford, from Riverside, from all over the state, were reaching out to the Black Parallel School Board for help. And that leads us to the lawsuit the Black Parallel School Board filed this year, along with two students. I’ll let Diana explain more.

Diana Lambert:

You know, it is a big deal because although there’s been big movement lately to reduce expulsion and suspension rates, and a law that said you cannot suspend or expel a kid for willful defiance in K through eight, and these rates are going down, the suit says that some districts are simply doing informal suspension and expulsion. So it doesn’t end up on the record, but these kids are still being removed from classes and sent away when they’re expelled to a continuation and community day schools without expulsion hearings. So not only is it not on the record, but they don’t get a chance to have a hearing before they’re informally expelled. And they have to get the parents often to sign off on this. Sometimes not. They have voluntary and involuntary expulsions and suspensions. But parents will often sign off on it because they don’t want it on their kid’s record. And they’re convinced this will help their kid somehow. But if they’re expelled, they still end up in the same situation than if they did it in the old way.

Zaidee Stavely:

So how did the state, how did the California Department of Education and the superintendent, state superintendent respond to you about the lawsuit?

Diana Lambert:

Well, they sent me a statement and basically pointed out some of the things that Tony Thurmond has been doing. So he has a task force that’s going to look at black student achievement. He’s expressed concern over the disparate ways that black students are treated when it comes to discipline. So he seems to be all for ending this.

Zaidee Stavely:

It sounds like you’ve known about the group for a long time. Having lived in and reported on education in Sacramento for so long. But what did you learn from writing this story? What is your big takeaway?

Diana Lambert:

My big takeaway, I think about the Black Parallel School Board is I really didn’t realize how much work they put into advocating for parents. I mean, they spent a lot of time showing up to individual meetings with individual parents and principals. You know, I knew they had their meetings and they were teaching parents become advocates, but it looks like they put a lot of work into helping individual parents. They even told me if a parent comes to see them, they don’t stop until they resolve their problem. They don’t turn them away.

Zaidee Stavely:

Has this idea caught on elsewhere?

Diana Lambert:

Yeah. Merced has a new Black Parallel School Board. I think it’s about two years old and there are other groups across the state. Other parent groups that are cropping up. The group in Sacramento says they’re constantly being asked to help them start groups. So I think we’ll see a lot more of these coming in the coming years.

Zaidee Stavely:

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of Education Beat, getting to the heart of California’s schools, a production of EdSource. Our producer is Coby McDonald. Special thanks to Carl Pinkston, Diana Lambert and our director Anne Vasquez. Our theme music is from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was brought to you by the Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation and the Stewart Foundation. I’m Zaidee Stavely. Join me next week and subscribe so you won’t miss an episode.

Most Popular

Tips for dealing with stress

November 3, 2021 The 3rd November is National Stress Awareness Day. With over 100,000 learners across the world who are juggling studying with life's other...

Timely Transition Tools for Back to School

As an Occupational Therapist (OT), I often make annual recommendations for back-to-school transition supports for students with special needs. A friend’s recent social media...

It’s beginning to look a lot more expensive for Christmas

This year’s holiday season will likely feel more normal than last. It’s also going to be more expensive, essentially across the board. You’ve probably noticed...

Why so much Obama-era pop culture feels so cringe now

One of the oddities of getting old is bearing witness as the pop culture you used to think would always be beyond reproach slowly...