'We will not fail:' NAACP and Black advocates push for equal education

"It was almost like segregation had never ended," says Oakland's Oscar Wright. 

Brown v. the Board of Education ended school segregation in 1954. But in Oakland in the 1980s, Wright says it seems like the landmark case had never happened. 

"East of Telegraph was white, west of Telegraph was black," says Wright, a long-time education advocate. 

The 97-year-old has been attending Oakland Unified school board meetings since the 80s, fighting for equal education every step of the way. 

In 1993, Wright and the Black United Front for Educational Reform filed a complaint against the district in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But, despite an action plan put together in 2000, the problems continued.

"They didn’t enforce it and the district didn’t implement it," says Wright. 

Nearly two decades later and a disparity impacting families throughout the country shines a light on a history of unequal education. In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, nine parents filed a lawsuit alleging failure to meet educational standards and disproportionately harming Black and Latino students.

Sound familiar?

"This was not a do-something lawsuit. Oakland Reach is not about do something, we’re about do this," says Lakisha Young who runs Oakland Reach.

Oakland Reach is one of the plaintiffs suing the California Department of Education and Superintendent Tony Thurmond. The organization of Oakland parents say they've worked with the district in the past and would like to do so again. 

Oakland Reach worked with the NAACP to create the literacy for all campaign, an initiative aimed at increasing reading scores with "The Science of Reading." OUSD was on board when the world took a turn for the worse.

"We had hit a huge milestone with the school district when COVID hit and then COVID hit and then you find everybody scrambling," says Young.  

A recent report by McKinsey & Company found that all students have fallen behind since the pandemic, but none more than black and brown students.

"The piece that’s really concerning is that’s inequitable and that students of color could be losing 11 to 12 months," says Emma Dorn, Global Education Practice Manager, McKinsey & Company.  

According to the report, more black and Hispanic students started the school year remotely and many don't have a laptop or internet access, but that's not the only problem.

"There’s really underlying opportunity gaps and that’s driving a lot of the problem," Dorn says.

For young children, like eight-year-old twins, Chi and Kyra, that problem needs to be solved sooner rather than later. 

"It just seems like they’re getting further and further behind," says Ericka Njemanze, the twins' mother.

She says she's really concerned about her children after raising her older three in OUSD and she's happy to have Oakland Reach around to help.  

"I’m going to work my husband’s not here all of the time. We would’ve fell through the gaps," she said. 

It's one of the reasons why Oakland Reach created a virtual hub at the start of the pandemic, to help keep students from falling in the cracks.

"And the results were amazing," Young says. 

From 5 weeks of instruction K through 2 participants increased reading by grade levels! But the results aren't cheap, which is why the organization is suing the state.

But, advocates believe a lawsuit shouldn't have been necessary in the first place. The NAACP is working with President Joe Biden on his racial equity plans and the hope is that soon lawsuits won't be necessary. 

"We’re going to demand that you invest in education by providing more funding, federally, and statewide and locally, to the services that we need," Tiffany Dena Loftin, Youth and College National Director, NAACP.

"We will not fail because so many people have failed us," Young says. 

 On a local and national level, it's this resilience and tenacity continuing to push a broken education system.