Landon Dickey, a Harvard Business School and SFUSD alumnus, was hired last month to fill the newly created position of the special assistant for African-American achievement and leadership. In that role, Dickey’s sole purpose is to chart a course for improving the success of black students — an effort youth supporters say cannot come soon enough.
“We’re optimistic that the tide is turning in the district, that it’s becoming a place [where] African-American students will thrive and African-American families will feel welcome,” said Kevine Boggess, director of youth organizing for Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth.
Despite efforts over the years to promote success for black students — last year, for instance, the Board of Education passed a resolution favoring alternatives to suspension, which the district said disproportionately affect black and minority students — a large gap persists in academic achievement. The SFUSD’s high school graduation clung to 82 percent in the 2013-14 school year, but only 65.5 percent of black students graduated.
Additionally, while the district cut its suspension total in half — from 2,311 in 2011-12 to 1,177 in 2013-14 — nearly 50 percent of the suspensions over the past three school years were black students.
“It’s not acceptable,” Dickey said of those numbers.
The San Francisco native said he is prepared to get to work on that and other issues. Though armed with a list of ideas, including developing goals and metrics to track black student outcomes as well as taking ideas from the African American Parent Advisory Council that was created last year, Dickey’s greatest asset may be his own experience in the district.
Through various hardships at school — from a stutter while in first grade at Lakeshore Elementary School to nearly failing a geometry class at Lowell High School — Dickey said it was inspiration from teachers that encouraged him to work harder.
“Having those adults that provide that network is really critical to students feeling like school is a place where they belong, and school is a place where they can thrive,” Dickey said.
Individualizing supports for students is also crucial, he added.
“One of the key components is really just making sure that educators, as they’re working with students, really can see and envision and support the success of each of their African-American students,” Dickey said.
Dickey said he also believes his roots in San Francisco will help him in his new role. His grandfather owned a business in the Fillmore, while his mother was born and raised in the Bayview. Dickey himself grew up near Mount Davidson, where his parents still live.
Boggess, of Coleman Advocates, said parents and students historically have not been engaged enough in helping develop strategies for increasing the success of black students and that it will be beneficial to have a link — Dickey — to unite the interested parties.
“Sometimes there’s a disconnect with the people who are doing the planning and the people who are actually in need of the support,” Boggess said.
Dickey, 27, graduated from Harvard University in 2009 and earned a master’s in business administration from Harvard Business School in 2013. He previously served as an adviser to the late Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and as the interim education adviser to Boston Mayor Martin Walsh.
The creation of Dickey’s position comes after Superintendent Richard Carranza last year joined dozens of other school superintendents to sign President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative that seeks to improve the outcomes of all students.
“I believe San Francisco has not only unprecedented conviction but also more capability than ever before to make a difference for our African-American youth,” Carranza said in a statement. “We are taking bold steps to ensure all of our African-American children are prepared to graduate from high school and pursue higher education and economic opportunity in this city or wherever they choose.”
Dickey will earn $106,500 a year, funded entirely through a grant.
Community leaders are optimistic about a new approach by the San Francisco Unified School District to tackle long-standing disparities among black students and their peers.