Academic Pep Talks Are Color Coded

Shirley Dang, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, California), Feb. 27, 2007

With schools under increasing pressure to improve test scores, Mount Diablo High School has resorted to a new way to motivate students: by race.

The Concord campus on Friday held separate assemblies for students of different ethnicities to talk about last year’s test results and the upcoming slew of state exams this spring.

Jazz music and pictures of Martin Luther King greeted African-American students, whereas Filipino, Asian and Pacific Islander students saw flags of their foreign homelands on the walls. Latinos and white students each attended their own events, too, complete with statistics showing results for all ethnicities and grade level.

“They started off by saying jokingly, ‘What up, white people,’” said freshman Megan Wiley, 14. Teachers flashed last year’s test scores and told the white crowd of students to do better for the sake of their people.

“They got into, ‘You should be proud of your race,’” Wiley said. “It was just weird.”

Several parents later told the Times that the meetings smacked of segregation resurrected.

“Why did they have to divide the students by race?” said Filipino parent Claddy Dennis, mother of freshman Schenlly Dennis. “In this country, everybody is supposed to be treated equally. It sounds like racism to me.”

Principal Bev Hansen said she held the student assemblies by ethnicity this year and last year to avoid one group harassing another based on their test scores. The 1,600-student campus, one of the most ethnically diverse high schools in the Mt. Diablo school district, is roughly half Latino, 30 percent white and 15 percent black, with Asian nationalities rounding out the mix.

Last year, the school improved its academic performance index score, largely based on test scores, to 613 out of 1,000. Among the races, Asians scored highest. Whites earned a 667. African-Americans scored a 580, whereas Latinos earned a 571.

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Jack Jennings, president of the National Center on Education Policy, a leading education research group, called the racially divided meetings potentially illegal and dangerous.

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Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools, school districts and states must report and are accountable for scores in reading and math for specific races, English learners, special-education students and economically disadvantaged students. All statistically significant groups must show continuous test score improvement.

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Hispanic students made a 50-point gain on the state’s 1,000-point achievement scale. White students improved by 46 points, whereas English learners posted the greatest rise, more than 80 points.

“There’s nothing negative about these assemblies,” said school secretary Arnetta Jones, who is African-American and helped organize the assembly for African-American students. “It wasn’t, in any way, to put people down.”

African-American students raised their score on the state academic performance index by 61 points. “We showed an incredible amount of improvement on our test scores,” Jones said.

The event also celebrated black culture, Jones said. Two students performed a dance with choreography by African-American dance visionary Alvin Ailey. A black pastor from Bay Point delivered a message. One student read a poem that is the mantra of a black fraternity from UC Berkeley.

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