Bridging the Achievment Gap with Dr. Rex C. Fortune
Dr. Rex C. Fortune’s new book, “Bridging the Achievement Gap, What Successful Educators and Parents Do,” was the focus of a book launch event and discussion Saturday afternoon at Underground Books in Oak Park.
Following a warm introduction by host Mother Rose, proprietor of Underground Books, Fortune, who earned his PhD in education from Stanford University in 1972, conveyed the inspiration, insight and leadership that have been the hallmark of his distinguished career as an educator.
Fortune first shared his heartfelt gratitude towards his son, Rex C. Fortune III, and Phawnda Moore, both of whom were present at the event and were instrumental in seeing the book through to completion.
Fortune III, who serves as Vice President of Fortune and Associates, provided the initial support and encouragement when Fortune was considering expanding upon his previous book, “Leadership on Purpose: Promising Practices for African American and Hispanic Students,” co-authored by Dr. Rosemary Papalewis. Fortune III also did basic research critical to designing the methodology of the study during the project’s beginning phases when only he and his dad were working on the project.
Moore is a Communication Specialist that joined the team 15 months ago as the editor of the book that was to be published by Fortune’s educational company, Fortune and Associates. Moore’s efforts were recognized by the National School Public Relations Association. The book received their prestigious 2012 award for editing, designing and managing the production of “Bridging the Achievement Gap.”
Fortune commenced his substantive remarks by posing the question, “Why did I do this?”
By way of response, he then explained that there are those schools that do well despite the fact that their student population consists of a very high concentration of black and Hispanic students and over half of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced school lunches. He stated that the story of their positive achievements was not being told.
The attentive audience, compromised of parents, fellow educators and advocates for education, came to seek solutions to help improve the academic performance of schools whose student bodies are comprised largely of African American and Hispanic students from economically disadvantaged circumstances.
When explaining what the achievement gap consists of, Fortune used statistics to demonstrate that African American and Hispanic students consistently lag far behind Asian and white students in terms of performance at grade level while matriculating through grades K-12, in high school graduation rates, and moving forward after high school to complete at least a bachelor’s degree.
The importance of these numbers was highlighted by the fact that 50% of the six million California students in K-12 are Hispanic and another 7% are African American. Fortune drove home the point by stating that the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) is depressed when former underachieving students enter the work force in large numbers and are not as productive as they could be because too many of them lack basic skills.
The aim of his study, which formed the basis for the book, was to determine factors that made a difference with the purpose of building a model for replicating in order to spread success to other similarly situated schools with underperforming student populations.
Drawing from the meticulous research that is the foundation of his book, Fortune describes the common denominators of the 20 high achieving schools (5 charter schools and 15 traditional public schools) selected for the study, where a majority of students performed below grade level proficiency before transformative measures were implemented.
The result is a comprehensive set of recommendations for improvement which are encapsulated in the book. Its chapters detail specific policies and ideas that, once implemented, were successful in turning around an underperforming school and maintaining a high level of achievement thereafter.
Fortune emphasized that raising the level of expectations of teachers, students and parents, along with instilling the belief that improved academic performance could be achieved, is the necessary glue that holds all of the stakeholders together when changes follow that are unfamiliar and cause discomfort. He further indicated that the pain and sacrifices must “be made with confidence” that the necessary measures will result in long term benefits and rewards.
In a series of brief anecdotes, Fortune relayed how the expectations of his own parents and members of the community where he was raised in North Carolina played a significant role in his belief that “his generation should do better than the generation before.”
In the chapter of the book entitled, “Parent Engagement at School and at Home,” Fortune outlines 11 successful parenting practices that contribute to high achieving students. Some of these include establishing routines that emphasize the importance of education in the home in addition to at school, as well as role modeling behaviors of learning and de-emphasizing distracting activities such as too much television, social networking and playing video games.
Fortune discussed key parenting practices that result in a student progressing in his or her learning and maintaining proficiency at or above a grade level. Practices included engaging in activities essential to building a child’s vocabulary, providing a suitable place for learning in the home, frequently monitoring a child’s progress, extending praise for accomplishments, and seeking out additional help to supplement a child’s deficiencies.
Fortune also noted that parents and teachers that have multiple means of communicate with each other increase the likelihood that the child will maintain suitable progress in his or her education.
In his book, Fortune stresses that for the strategies to be successful, educators that come to an underperforming school must be committed from the outset to work with high need students and genuinely desire to be there.
In addition, the school must establish a pacing of subject matter that ensures mastery of content included on standardized tests that measure academic progress, implement frequent assessments and make appropriate adjustments of instructional plans along the way.
Fortune points out in his book that these are some of the themes that are common in schools with high minority populations that have been successful in closing the performance gap.
Another important factor is that there exists a level of camaraderie among school staff including teachers. Equal, if not more important, is the idea that teachers, school leaders and parents are all on the same page about student behavior in and out of the classroom.
These elements are necessary to create an atmosphere where there is a universal belief that learning will take place and that the achievements of staff will be recognized, regardless of how modest the educational facilities may be.
Fortune related that in order to expand upon the model of success that is detailed in his book, as many as possible of the 33 promising teaching practices should be incorporated, even if all of them cannot be done initially.
Fortune also acknowledged that investing more time in students by making changes in the academic calendar is a proven strategy that has been successful. Examples include increasing the length of the school day dedicated to learning and increasing the number of school days available for children who are already behind to “catch up.”
Fortune noted that making use of the time available to students during more frequent break periods is another component of the strategy that may be included to bridge the achievement gap. He went on to indicate that proper assessment of what skills students actually possess at the outset is key to determining what needs to be done, even if it requires an individual plan for each student.
The role of leadership was a topic that did not escape Fortune’s attention before he closed out his formal talk and engaged in a question and answer session with members of the audience. He indicated that political leaders who may not have children or are not directly affected by the issue of bridging the achievement gap may place a higher priority on other matters, such as public safety or highway construction.
Fortune stated that policymakers that are directly involved in education matters, including school boards, may be approached as taxpayers who are funding an educational system that could be improved through strategic changes.
A successful approach to implementation is to begin by making wholesale changes at some of the lowest performing schools by putting into operation a model that mimics the high achieving schools and see if it works.
Fortune went on to indicate that education is not simply the providence of schools and that we all need to do our share. He closed his remarks by issuing a challenge.
“What is your commitment to make education more effective to those who need it most?”
Thereafter, Fortune related that making a difference was his purpose over selling books or DVDs. He indicated that a measure of personal satisfaction was achieved following the San Bernardino School Board’s response to a group of parents a few years ago. The parents wanted to create a charter school and model it after PS-7, the high achieving K-8 school located in Oak Park that is a part of St. Hope Public Schools.
After the San Bernardino School Board approved the idea, the Hardy Brown College Prep School was founded in 2010. It started with a 95% African American population whose student population all tested below basic skill levels before the school opened its doors.
The results of the first year’s test scores on the A.P.I. (Academic Performance Index), was 767, well above the state average of 685 for African American students. The school appears to be within reach of its five year goal of an average score of 800 within just two years, and plans to eventually expand from K-3 to K-8.
The lively question and answer session with Fortune that followed ranged from diverse subjects such as children with special needs, vocational education, and the tracking system popular on larger school campuses whereby some students are steered toward college prep and advanced placement courses while others are guided into vocational training or less rigorous courses that still satisfy graduation requirements.
Fortune’s thoughtful responses reflected his many years of experience with a wide spectrum of students who present different challenges and whose needs may be addressed in different ways. He indicated that students with behavioral problems must be appropriately managed in order for learning to take place, and that special needs programs are often the best possible solution.
On the issue of vocational education, Fortune recalled the theoretical debates that raged during the 1920s and 1930s between Dr. W. E. B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington. The former was the first African American to obtain a Ph.D from Harvard and supported liberal arts education for African American along with full societal integration. The latter founded the Tuskegee Institute (now known as Tuskegee University) and supported vocational education. His approach attracted the support of many Southern whites due to his less proactive stance on the issue of full societal integration.
Fortune went on to state that due to historical perceptions about racial equality and the need to end segregation, a historical misconception and prejudice developed in the African American community against vocational education. He indicated that it most likely worked against many students of color who attempted but failed to complete college, but would have been well served from training for a well paying, high skill vocational career.
“What is most important is that we must teach our kids,” stated Grace Carter-Douglas, an author and community activist who is a living legend in Oak Park. She indicated that she enjoyed the question and answer session most of all.
“We don’t give up on our kids and we don’t give them up to people who don’t care about them,” said Carter-Douglas.
Marichal Brown, co-owner of Master Barber shop, a local hub for cultural and community events, indicated that he attended the book launch discussion to hear Fortune speak.
“I want to get my grandchildren ready for success,” Brown said.
“I think the plan they have for education is amazing,” stated Brown when commenting on the many ideas presented by Fortune that are supported by his track record of accomplishments.
After the event, Fortune III, indicated that he was proud of his role as a researcher in the creation of “Bridging the Achievement Gap.” He further indicated that it was important to maintain complete editorial control over the final product, which led to the decision to publish the book under the auspices of Fortune and Associates.
“We wanted the freedom to tell the story as it needed to be told,” said Fortune III.
“I see the book as a way for public schools to improve,” stated retired Florin High School teacher Maria Herndon, who now teaches mathematics at Cosumnes River College.
“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing at all,” Herndon said. “School principals and teachers who read the book can implement some of the recommendations even if they can’t do them all.”
Mother Rose of Underground Books was pleased with the number of people who came out to support the event and Fortune’s presentation.
“I thought it was a very informative discussion about his book,” Mother Rose stated. “There is an achievement gap with minority students and the word is getting out about what needs to be done to turn around the statistics.”
“Bridging the Achievement Gap, What Successful Educators and Parents Do,” is available for purchase in the color version by contacting Fortune and Associates through their website at www.fortuneandassociates.com. A black and white edition may be purchased through Amazon.com and a Kindle edition is also available.
Fortune will be the featured guest speaker at the Sacramento County Department of Education Leadership Institute workshop scheduled from 4 to 6 p.m. on Sept. 27 at the David P. Meany Center located at 10474 Mather Blvd. in Mather, California.
Those who are interested in attending the event should contact Kristen Coyle, Leadership Institute Director at the Sacramento County Office of Education. She can be contacted via telephone at (916) 228-2538, by email at email@example.com or through their website at www.scoeleadership.net.