(Image courtesy Samohi)
(Image courtesy Samohi)

SMMUSD HDQTRS — As officials with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District work to evaluate a new program meant to reduce the achievement gap, a group of parents is raising opposition to bringing in what they call an expensive program lacking in proven results.

The program, called The Village Nation, trains adults to be “elders,” or mentors, for African-American students as part of a strategy to increase engagement in school. It also presents assemblies geared toward African-American youth that tackle cultural norms within the community.

If adopted, it would be one prong of a strategy to cut down on the gap in test scores and academic achievement between African-American students and their Asian and white peers.

That gap was demonstrated in the 2011-12 school year by a 238-point difference between African-Americans and Asians on the “academic performance index,” an amalgamation of standardized test scores, and a 200-point difference between African-American and white students.

Raising test scores is a potential result of Village Nation, not the objective, said co-founder Fluke Fluker.

“Our goal is not high test scores, it’s to make better choices,” Fluker told the Board of Education. “When they make better choices, the byproduct is that they value their future.”

However, the program is estimated to cost the district $40,000 if fully embraced. A quarter of that money has already been invested, and parents like Yvonne Dawson, herself a product of the SMMUSD system, think that’s too high for a program with questionable outcomes that segregates students from their peers.

Dawson is one of the faces of the anti-Village Nation crowd, which is gathering signatures to present to the Board of Education.

She points to schools like Grover Cleveland High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the birthplace of Village Nation, which saw growth on standardized test scores between 2011 and 2012, but chalked up mostly declines before that time.

The program’s own website notes that the high school’s “academic performance index” scores are 200 points higher than a decade ago when the program first took root.

Also, for 2010-11 — the last year for which information is available — only 73 percent of African-American males graduated from Grover Cleveland High School compared to 93.3 percent at Santa Monica High School.

If Santa Monica’s children are already doing better than those in schools that have had Village Nation for years, Dawson and others question its value at the school.

“We’re asking for empirical evidence to back up the rhetoric,” Dawson said. “We don’t want to see anything chosen based on emotion. Our children deserve more than that.”

Parents also take issue with Village Nation’s methods, which they believe reinforce negative stereotypes and come from a “deficit mentality.”

Dawson points to an assembly offered to Samohi students that Fluker referred to as “Kings and Queens” when he referenced it in front of the Board of Education, leaving off the other half of the title — “Pimps and Hoes.”

Separating students based on race also rubs Dawson, herself an African-American, the wrong way.

“That’s not the culture of who we are,” she said, referring to the Santa Monica community.

Parents who disagree with Village Nation or do not want their children to take part have the ability to opt out of the program, which is a small piece of a comprehensive approach to address minority and low-income student success in the district, supporters say.

That cuts down on the number of students the program could potentially reach, as there are only 272 African-American students enrolled at Santa Monica High School.

Village Nation is the best bet to fulfill the touchy-feely culture piece of the puzzle, something that is very difficult to quantify, said Janet McKeithen.

McKeithen is the reverend at the Church in Ocean Park, but became involved with the debate at the high school through the Committee for Racial Justice that meets at the church.

Other members of the committee once had children in the district, are parents of graduating seniors or have little connection to the district at all, detractors say, meaning they won’t have to live with the impacts of the program if something goes wrong.

The committee heard several presentations and did its homework before throwing its weight behind the Village Nation program, McKeithen said.

“We didn’t just pull this out of a hat,” McKeithen said. “That was the one that seemed most effective, and that’s what we’re interested in.”

“Effective” can be hard to define when a program doesn’t lend itself to numbers and requires an investment before it can be measured.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, said Kathy Christie, vice president of Knowledge and Information Management at the Education Commission of the States, an education policy organization.

“They could set up some metrics out of what would be good indicators of success,” Christie said. “Are (students) coming to the program in the first place? Is it improving students’ discipline? Is it really resonating?”

That may not be a “gold standard” evaluation in Christie’s book, but it’s one way to approach testing the program.

Figuring out how to evaluate Village Nation and fit it into the matrix of programs already available at Samohi is the task of Terry Deloria, the new assistant superintendent of education services.

Although people on both sides of the Village Nation debate want to involve test scores and other numbers, that’s just not possible, she said.

Although Village Nation celebrated its 10-year anniversary in July 2012, it’s still too new and mixed in with a multiplicity of other factors at each school site to separate out the impact of Village Nation alone.

“To tie it to test scores, to me as a statistician, that’s a tough sell,” Deloria said.

Instead, Deloria must create a Samohi-specific set of measurement tools, something that will only be possible after the group of elders at the high school reports back with recommendations on what other kinds of support they need, and whether that will involve a greater investment in Village Nation.

Then Deloria will begin to consider methodology, like student surveys, to determine the impact of the program.

Although the program has proven controversial, both sides of the debate agree on one critical element — the district should do everything possible to make sure African-American students at Samohi achieve academic success and leave the school ready for college.

“We all want the same thing,” McKeithen said. “There’s disagreement about this, but I hope we can all be friends and work together.”




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