LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Reginald Brookens is the principal at King/Drew Magnet High School for Medicine and Science.
The son of a single mother, Brookens was born and raised in Los Angeles. He said going to college was "ingrained" in him from a young age.
"As I was a young boy growing up in this city, when I was 5 or 6-years-old, my mom used to drive me by USC, like, this is where you go when you when you finish high school," Brookens said.
He actually ended up going to UC San Diego, then Cal State Northridge for graduate school, then became a math teacher. He said this is his seventh year as principal at King/Drew.
King/Drew is a magnet school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, though it's technically within the boundaries of the Compton Unified School District. That means students from all over the district can attend, but according to Brookens, about two-thirds of the school's population lives within a five-mile radius.
As a medicine and science school, its mission is to create more opportunities for minority students to go into health care. Brookens said the school has partnerships with six institutions across the city.
King/Drew was one of just four top high schools for Black students and one of 59 top high schools for Latino students on Innovate Public Schools' list of top 2020 Los Angeles County public schools. Innovate Public Schools is a non-profit that works with students, families, educators and elected officials to ensure equitable public education for low-income students and students of color.
State data shows King/Drew had a graduation rate of nearly 100% in the last four years, and normally has about three-quarters of its students meet University of California and California State University course requirements.
King/Drew is also 40% Black and 58% Latino. Between 80% and 90% of its population qualify for free or reduced lunch.
"Which would sometimes make people believe that the data that we achieve is not possible, in a in a school like this in this economic area," said Brookens.
A symptom of a larger problem
The expectation for King/Drew students after graduation is college, said Brookens.
"And that's not the expectation that our students always hear, right? In our in our world, in our community, the expectation is not, 'you're going to go to Harvard, or Princeton, or UCLA,'" said Brookens, naming a few universities where King/Drew alumni have gone.
Compared to King/Drew where nearly all students graduate, about 80% of students across all of Los Angeles County graduate high school, according to data from the California Department of Education over the last four years.
Black students have one of the lowest graduation rates in L.A. County at about 76% for the 2018-19 school year. Only Native American students have consistently had a lower graduation rate, which was about 61% in 2018-19.
But, there are larger gaps in measurements looking at college readiness. More than half of all students in Los Angeles County met the requirements for UC and CSU schools in 2018-19, but for Black students it was just 46%. That's compared to 59% of white students and 79% of Asian students.
Taking challenging classes like advanced placement courses is one of the pathways to college, especially prestigious ones, experts said.
"They're instrumental. They are so, so, so important when it comes to gaining access to our most prestigious colleges and universities in this country," said Tyrone Howard, a professor of education, the associate dean for equity and diversity at UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Services and the director of the Black Male Institute.
"To do well in those AP classes and to be able to pass the AP exams looks incredibly, incredibly good on a student's transcript. So, the issue becomes one of equity," Howard said.
And enrollment in these classes isn't equitable.
In the Los Angeles metro area, which includes Los Angeles and Orange counties, about 31% of white students were enrolled in AP classes. But it's only 18% for Black students, and 22% for Latino students, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Data Collection.
Similar gaps exist in both the Riverside-San Bernardino metro area and the Oxnard-Ventura metro area.
"Access to AP classes is a symptom of that thought process of how do you... see students of color and their ability to learn? Some of it is grounded in that fundamental piece," said Jalisa Johnson, the director of Black student achievement in the Black Educator Advocates Network for Innovate Public Schools.
According to Micah Ali, the president of Compton Unified School District and the founder of the California Association of Black School Educators, some people implicitly have a low expectation of Black children.
"Oftentimes, people equate poverty with being uneducable. People oftentimes equate someone having one parent in the home and not looking at the fact that there's a village that's a part of the fabric of the fiber that's rearing that student or that child," Ali said.
'A culture of success and a land of high expectations'
The racial gap in AP class enrollment in schools is just one example of how some schools and districts don't always have high expectations for students, especially students of color.
"Research has demonstrated that when teachers have high expectations of students, they're more likely to do better. And when they're given access to material, curriculum that is actually at grade level and challenging they also do better," said Jennifer Perla, the associate director of research and policy at Innovate Public Schools.
That view is exactly why Principal Brookens at King/Drew said his school has been so successful.
"We are a culture of success and a land of high expectations," Brookens said.
King/Drew proudly displays lists of colleges and universities where each student in each graduation class will attend on its walls.
"So we give a lot of instances and examples of people that look like them that have done it," Brookens said.
Any student that wants to take an advanced class at King/Drew, like an AP class, can take it.
"I don't care what kind of student you've been in the past, right? Because we believe in our teachers. We have a motto, that we're going to take you from where you are to where you need to be," he said.
Brookens also said King/Drew's counselors are matched with a cohort of students and follow them throughout their four years, which helps the counselors get a good sense of who the students are.
Counselors are the "gatekeepers" to many advanced courses and college opportunities, according to Tyrone Howard. But, he said they are still "human beings" who may have "preconceived notions" about who's a high-learner and who isn't.
"Many counselors might see a student whose first language is not English and think 'well I won't recommend that student for an AP course because English is not their primary language, they probably would not do well,' despite the fact that they may not have ever had a conversation with this student about if they even want to go to college if they want to take more challenging courses," Howard said.
The other key to eliminating inequities in college readiness, experts said, is parent involvement. But many low-income or working-class parents, a higher percentage of whom are parents of color who perhaps didn't go to college themselves, may not know how to prepare their children for college.
"And if the counselor doesn't think to even raise this as a possibility, you can have a student spend four years in high school and never have a single conversation about going to college, let alone taken an AP or an honors course and to me that's unfortunate. Every student should at least have the opportunity to at least explore that pathway of possibility," Howard said.
Parents should be encouraged to ask questions of the school, he said.
"We know that in this state and in this country, that if you don't ask questions, if you don't advocate, you can easily be left behind," Howard said.
Many of Brookens' students at King/Drew have gone on to become first-generation college students. So, the school tries to educate parents on how to make their children college-ready through things like AP class fairs for parents as well as students.
"We want the parents to understand that, yes, this is going to be a challenge and challenges make you better, right? And, you are going to have to support your student through this challenge. But we believe they can do it," Brookens said.
Students becoming advocates for themselves
Another critical aspect to closing the college-readiness gap is students of color seeing themselves in the curriculum.
"It must be connected to things that students value," said Jared DuPree, the senior director for the Office of the Superintendent at LAUSD.
"Their culture, their beliefs, their aspirations, things that they are motivated to do. Making that connection, that's true for AP, honors, regular, intervention, any course has to connect to things that are true, valued by Black students. Otherwise, they're not going to be motivated to learn," DuPree said.
At King/Drew, Brookens said the school is "big on culture throughout what we do."
"And that's all with the goal of loving yourself, right? And believing that your culture, your race, your ethnicity is important in this world," Brookens said.
He said it helps students become comfortable being advocates for themselves.
"If you are an advocate for yourself, then you will not be tolerant of mediocrity," Brookens said.
Hoping, in part, to address the gap in college readiness among Black students, LAUSD created the Black Student Achievement Plan.
The plan, unveiled in February, includes funding for increased bias training, curriculum audits and curriculum grants to support more ethnic studies courses, in addition to diverting funding from school police to positions like restorative justice advisors and school climate coaches.
"We're really addressing the needs of a whole child," said Norma Spencer, the administrator for Black Student Achievement at LAUSD. "So normally in education, we only think about the academics, but we know that children really have so much more that's going on in their real world."
DuPree, also from LAUSD, said a lot of motivation for the plan comes from idea that there is "no such thing" as compulsory education because every student learns differently and values different things.
"It's not a general treatment for Black students," he said.
"Within that word Black, such a variance right? And the different cultures, ethnicities, the things that the Black students value, so it's not a general treatment it's specific treatment... for each individual Black student wherever they are on that spectrum," DuPree continued.
The plan tracks 16 measures, said LAUSD officials, including enrollment in AP courses and the number of students who are on track to meet college requirements.
Brookens said the Black Student Achievement Plan is an initiative that's long overdue.
"Even though we believe inside our organization, we've always honored and valued and expected our Black students to succeed, we know that's not the general sentiment," he said.
Brookens said the plan will help King/Drew hire more counselors specifically for their Black population, which is almost half the school.
Compton Unified School District is also addressing these gaps with the new Office of Black Student Achievement.
"For many students, we have to afford opportunity, we have to afford access and we have to make certain that we're looking at models and various means in which to ensure that all students will have access to public education that might fit their particular desire," said Micah Ali from Compton Unified.
The office will conduct routine audits of school climate, and engage students and parents to figure out what they need and want.
"Because this is a very symbiotic relationship it's not totalitarian a dictatorial," said Ali.
He continued, saying it's important for teachers, principals, and all other support staff to understand, "that their role is to drive systemic change within the lives of these children. And so again, we will measure, and we will hold adults accountable if, in fact, their expectations of Black children fail to rise."
Brookens said he knows the King/Drew model can be used at other schools and that he hopes fewer conversations about equity are necessary in the future.
"There have been inequities in our society for as long as we all can remember that have been swept under the rug. So, it's fortunate, we're fortunate today that those things are coming to light," he said.