Get Up, Stand Up: California’s Search For Education Equity

Nobody told the students to remove their hoodies, or stash their snacks.

Instead, a brief dose of hip-hop eased 10th-graders into their seats at Oakland High, a campus locked behind metal doors in this city by San Francisco Bay. Teacher Earnest Jenkins III, a towering man in a baseball cap, turned off the music. And he asked his class to reflect on a vocabulary word — mendicant, or beggar—and a quote: “Use missteps as stepping stones to deeper understanding and greater achievement.”

“You’ve got to do it yourself,” a student offered, “because it’s got to be genuine.” Jenkins smiled. “Way to sum that up,” he said.

Next, Jenkins guided students in writing questions about college admissions — questions for an upcoming guest, a black University of California at Berkeley vice chancellor who had also attended Cal. The campus enrolled about 5,500 freshmen in the fall of 2015, only 157 of them black. “Think about what she may have thought about when she was in there,” said Jenkins, who is 35 and also black. “Maybe she was the only African-American in a classroom. Maybe the only one in the dorm room. Maybe the only one on that floor.

With that, he hit a key on a computer and treated the all-male, all-black class to a soundtrack of Bob Marley singing: “Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights.”

Eleanor Bell Fox/ Center for Public Integrity

Teacher Earnest Jenkins III assists students with an assignment during his popular Manhood Development class at Oakland High School in Oakland, California.

Unorthodox? Perhaps. Jenkins’ reading, writing and reggae style clearly suits Oakland, a city that embraces its multiculturalism with pride. But the popular Manhood Development class that Jenkins teaches is more than a cool elective. It exemplifies the range of experimentation that’s becoming possible as a massive new school-financing formula takes root in California.

The new initiative suffers from a numbing moniker — the Local Control Funding Formula — but it represents nothing short of a revolution in how education is financed for more than 6.2 million students in the country’s biggest state.

As in many states, California’s school districts are funded with a mix of local property taxes and state money. This has tended to mean that spending on kids from affluent communities has been higher — a dilemma that’s led to unequal-funding lawsuits nationwide, starting with a landmark 1971 California case, Serrano v. Priest, and continuing even now in Connecticut, where the latest battle is raging. Despite reforms to create more equity in the wake of that 1971 suit, California’s convoluted distribution system continued to shortchange some of the state’s poorest kids. And strict funding rules foiled educators’ attempts to try local approaches tailored to their specific school population.

But over the past four years, circumstances in the Golden State have come together to change the game — radically. In 2012, voters approved Proposition 30, a temporary state sales tax and income tax hike on the wealthy aimed at filling in deep recession-era cuts to state school funding. The measure has raised about $8 billion a year. A white-hot, tech-driven economic recovery has raised many billions more in revenue for education. And although tax collections have dipped recently, the state’s basic budget for K-12 schools and two-year community colleges has rocketed from $47.3 billion in 2011 to a projected $71.4 billion this year.

The bid to fundamentally change how education funds were distributed met skepticism at first because of its aggressive “equity” push. But eventually it found bipartisan support in California’s ethnically diverse, mostly Democratic legislature. Lawmakers approved the new formula in 2013, and an eight-year phase-in plan began that fall.

The new system affords far greater local control and guarantees that districts with substantial populations of disadvantaged kids receive more state money — lots more.

This is how it works: All districts get higher per-pupil basic grants that vary by grade level. On top of that, districts also receive 20 percent more in “supplemental” per-pupil dollars based on the number of students identified as disadvantaged. If more than 55 percent of a district’s students are disadvantaged, the district also receives “concentration” funding — tied to the percentage of disadvantaged kids above the 55 percent threshold. Concentration funding is equal to a hefty 50 percent of basic per-student base grants.

The bottom-line increases can be stunning. In 2020, for example, when the formula is expected to be fully phased in, districts could receive a projected basic rate of about $9,115 for every high school student. But a supplemental grant would bump that up to $10,978. A concentration grant would bump it up to more than $14,128 for every disadvantaged high school student above the 55 percent threshold.

Disadvantaged students are those who qualify for a free or reduced school lunch because their families are low-income (about half the state’s students are low-income, as students nationally are), or who are English-as-a-second language learners or high-risk foster kids. Kids in more than one target group are only counted once.

The statute creating the LCFF requires that supplemental and concentration money be invested in ways that “increase or improve” education for these disadvantaged students.

As the LCFF unfolds, complaints are surfacing about dubious expenditures — on school policing or across-the-board staff pay raises that state officials warn should be “targeted” to benefit disadvantaged kids. Critics are also assailing confusing “local control and accountability plans,” or LCAPs, that districts must create using a state template. The state isn’t collecting data on spending of earmarked money either.

Still, if students start showing academic gains, California’s experiment could provide a blueprint as other states struggle to close their own gaps between affluent and disadvantaged students. If achievement remains stagnant, though, that will no doubt threaten the formula’s future—and embolden those who argue that additional spending has little to do with educational quality.

In the meantime, some educators are seizing the moment — and the extra money —  to institute homegrown experiments aimed at transforming school culture in some of the toughest neighborhoods of Los Angeles and Oakland. 

In the meantime, some educators are seizing the moment — and the extra money — to institute homegrown experiments aimed at transforming school culture in some of the toughest neighborhoods of Los Angeles and Oakland.

“School should be fun,” said Cliff Hong, principal of Oakland’s Roosevelt Middle School, which serves mostly low-income Latino, black and Asian kids, some of whom will later attend Oakland High. Hong said he wants “high will, high skill” staff who don’t write off kids as failures when they’re in seventh and eighth grade.

“When I started working here six years ago,” Hong said, “we had adults who referred to students as ‘repeat offenders’ and asked: ‘When are we going to get better kids?’”

Eleanor Bell Fox/ Center for Public Integrity

It’s recess time at the Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood. Joyner has been using “restorative justice” methods staff credit with improving kids’ emotional and academic skills. Extra funding has helped provide an adviser on this method.

A fall to bottom sparks call for change

Like many states, California has struggled with a disturbing academic “achievement gap” that’s developed along socio-economic and ethnic lines — which is what the new funding formula is supposed to address.  

In 2013, as schools reeled from recession-era cuts, 68 percent of African-American and less than 76 percent of Latino students graduated high school in four years, compared to 92 percent of Asian-American and just under 88 percent of white students. That same year, only 39 percent of all California graduates took and passed sequences of courses that made them eligible to apply to four-year state colleges.

The problems were a long time coming. In the early 1970s, local property taxes covered most Golden State school districts’ budgets. The state was starting to supplement poorer districts. But when voters dramatically capped property tax increases in 1978 with Proposition 13, an anti-tax revolt, the state was forced to take over most school financing.

To manage the task, legislators set limits on a mix of local and state revenues districts could receive to fund basic school costs. A minority of wealthy districts rich enough in property taxes to cover basic costs without state aid were exempted from the local limit.  Over time, legislators added a laundry list of reasons—a small district’s rural setting is one—for why certain districts merited state aid beyond the state limit. Urban districts with large numbers of low-income kids often ended up the losers. In 2005-2006, about 60 percent of all California students were concentrated in large urban districts whose per-pupil base state grant was $85 less than the average grant statewide. That meant millions of dollars less a year in basic support.

The 2008 recession made things worse. Nearly one-fifth of state K-12 funding was chopped as legislators faced plunging state revenues from shrinking income and sales taxes. California hit 46th among states in per-pupil spending, and at or near bottom in librarians and counselors.

“A lot of my students didn’t have books. A lot of my students didn’t have after-school programs,” said Geordee Mae Corpuz, who provided college-prep support at Sacramento and Bay Area schools. “Students of color didn’t feel that there was much expected out of them.”

Corpuz quit and joined Californians for Justice, a civil-rights group that teamed up with others to sue the state in 2010, arguing that unfair school funding was depriving children of constitutional rights to a “meaningful education.”

The suit ultimately failed, but it did change the atmosphere.

Enter Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, who was also on the board back when Gov. Jerry Brown was governor in the late 1970s. Brown re-appointed Kirst in 2011 after being re-elected. A Stanford University professor emeritus of education and business, Kirst was an expert in Title I federal school aid for low-income students, and a former director of K-12 planning at the U.S. Department of Education. He urged reforming California’s basic funding criteria, as well as a parallel system that sent districts extra dollars that could only be spent on specific “categorical” programs.  

“The local districts ended up with maybe a good school garden but no money to clean the bathroom,” Kirst said. It wasn’t hard to get superintendents statewide to support throwing out most categorical restrictions, and Brown embraced the “local control” idea.  

Civil-rights groups championed Kirst’s push for “concentration” funding: Poorer kids who attend schools with affluent peers benefit from high expectations and greater opportunities available, he said. If disadvantaged kids are essentially segregated in schools, Kirst wrote in a policy paper, staff tend to expect less of kids, and kids “tend to have lower aspirations [and] more negative attitudes toward achievement.”

By 2020, Kirst believes, California’s LCFF will create “one of the most radically equalized” education financing systems in the country. Overall, the state still lags behind a few others with higher per-pupil spending, and school officials say they’d still like more to serve kids. But the surge in revenue has already helped get more money to the poorest districts. Some are currently receiving the equivalent of 90 percent of their projected full entitlements.

The new challenge is making sure the funding is efficiently targeted locally. From right to left, legislators remain concerned about accountability.  They approved a bill this year imposing a litany of tests and other measurements to hold schools accountable. But Brown vetoed the bill, arguing that it was too soon to start imposing more mandates.

Kirst has urged patience, comparing the new formula in a mammoth state like California to “an oil tanker” passing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge: “You’ve got to nudge it, and you’ve got to keep it moving over time.”

Meanwhile, the State Board of Education is developing an “evaluation rubric” to be released next year to judge how districts are doing. And a new public California Collaborative for Educational Excellence is tasked with collecting and distributing “best practices” for improving education for the neediest kids.

County offices of education are responsible for approving accountability plans. In theory, if student progress isn’t clear over a period of several years, the state can withhold money. For now, though, there’s an existing group of annual tests and yardsticks schools can use to check their pace.

A list of eight priorities set by the state are mostly conventional — like student achievement. But two stand out: more parent involvement and improved “school climate.” Districts are now required to form parent committees and seek parent and student input on their spending decisions.

Surveys suggest parents remain largely unaware of the grander role that the state imagined for them — although some places, such as Oakland, have created active parent committees. The goal of a healthy “school climate” reflects growing consensus that students can’t do well academically if they don’t feel “connected” to school.

Districts are investing most extra funding now to replenish teaching ranks cut during recent hard times and add strategic staff, without controversy. But dissent over some investments is growing.

Bilingual K-9 officer and dog?

Last April, Public Advocates, one of the civil-rights groups that sued the state in 2010, said that multiple school districts’ plans showed a “near universal failure” to identify and justify expenditures of dollars whose purpose was to benefit disadvantaged students. There’s no prohibition on combining that money with other funds as long as disadvantaged students benefit proportionately. But John Affeldt, Public Advocates’ managing attorney, said districts are required to explain that benefit and why using these funds to hire a cop or to increase salaries, for instance, actually helps those kids.  

Public Advocates joined the American Civil Liberties Union in filing a complaint last year against the Los Angeles Unified School District, accusing the giant district of “undermining” the LCFF by diverting $450 million in money for disadvantaged students in 2014 to cover special-education costs for students with disabilities. The L.A. district, 84 percent disadvantaged, argued that the diversion was legal because the majority served were disadvantaged. The California Department of Education, however, released an opinion this past June essentially limiting use of these funds in a proportionate manner to support special education for disadvantaged students.  

The Long Beach Unified School District, 69 percent disadvantaged, drew fire for a multi-year plan to use funds to serve disadvantaged kids to finance $14.4 million in pension and employee benefits payments and $7 million for salaries this year.

The district’s plan reasoned that compensation attracts qualified staff to support students, “particularly the low-income and other historically disadvantaged subgroups.” Civil-rights groups objected, and in September the district amended its plan, although not to activists’ satisfaction; instead, the district is investing $12 million in salaries and more than $2.5 million in benefits, arguing that these investments translate into “supplemental education support” for disadvantaged kids. In the coming academic year, these same expenditures jump to $16.5 million and $3.6 million.

More than one district has used extra funding for disadvantaged kids, rather than general grant money, to augment school policing.

For instance, the Stockton Unified School District, 88 percent disadvantaged, has invested more than $2 million for its own sworn police officers, adjunct safety officers, an alarm system, a crime data analyst and a bilingual K-9 officer and dog. The district plan asserts that security investments improve “school climate.” But some parents are unhappy because of Stockton school police officers’ forays into discipline that have led to arrests, tickets and restraints — including a 5-year-old whose hands and feet were bound with zip ties after an officer got involved in a discipline issue.

Oakland’s district is spending almost $4.4 million in funding for disadvantaged students on security officers at select schools. The security staff are going through training to de-escalate conflict, however. The 78 percent-disadvantaged Oakland district has limited the role of actual sworn police at schools.  Opinion on the need for security guards is split. The district is mindful that in 2015 it paid a $550,000 settlement to a disabled Oakland High student in a wheelchair whom a former security guard struck and dumped to the ground after the two argued.

Kirst, for his part, seems philosophical about controversies he believes will get hashed out over time. There may be a justification, he said, for limited raises for teachers paid substantially less than prevailing area pay, or to finance security, if there is consensus these decisions support students.

Eleanor Bell Fox/ Center for Public Integrity

Fifth grade teacher Raquel Williams is a pioneer in directing regular “restorative justice” circles in her classroom in Watts.

Once failing schools strive to connect

In Los Angeles, in the gang-plagued neighborhood of Watts, teachers and principals are already deepening a culture of restorative practices they believe is key to improving academics by changing the atmosphere in school.

The concept of restorative justice strives to resolve conflict by bringing parties together to air grievances, with a coordinator, to hold people accountable but also repair relationships. With White House support, a growing number of schools nationally are turning to restorative methods because of research suggesting that it is a more productive way — compared to suspensions — to support students who are caught up in cycles of disruptive behavior.

This year, the WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center, which provides research to schools, concluded that “preliminary evidence does suggest that [restorative justice] may have positive effects [on] discipline, attendance and graduation, climate and culture, and various academic outcomes.”

A short walk from Watts’ housing projects, at the corner of East 103rd and Grape Streets, the mostly Latino and black children who attend the Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School raced around a playground at recess. Some shot baskets or skipped rope. Two girls sat under a tree organizing piles of twigs and pebbles, as another girl stood over them, concentrating.

“I’m the judge,” she explained. “And they’re the cooks. I pick which one made the best brownie.”

Joyner staff say their job requires more than just ushering students into seats, going through lesson plans and organizing activities. Two critical positions — an attendance counselor and a restorative justice teaching adviser — have been added since the adoption of the LCFF.

“We have to deal with the impact that crime and poverty have on the children, before we can actually teach the whole child,” said Akida Kissane Long, Joyner’s principal. In 2015, Joyner’s students were 97 percent disadvantaged.

Watts, the scene of devastating riots in 1965, is transforming for the better, many say, putting the worst of its high-crime days behind it. But the South Los Angeles neighborhood is still punctuated by gunfire, sirens and police helicopters. It’s hard to miss drug dealing on some corners. Kids have seen people shot not far from school.

Long said she’s been a principal long enough to not presume what another school needs. But she says she knows what is working for Joyner — and quite a bit of it is “social emotional learning” that helps kids develop empathy and positive relationships.

To help kids process experiences, teacher Raquel Williams has her fifth-graders regularly gather in a circle and, if they wish, take turns picking up a “talking stick” and sharing thoughts about a topic that Williams introduces. Williams says circling helps kids listen more to one another. She says they’re more articulate and seem happier. And she’s noticing improvements in their ability to focus on school work — exactly what LCFF supporters hope districts can accomplish with flexibility.

“It’s a really good use of class time,” Williams said. The gamut of what kids discuss, she said, “is wide and vast.”

Joyner is a Los Angeles Unified School District school, but it’s run by a nonprofit called Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which took over management in 2010. Leveraging donations from businesses and foundations, along with district funding, it manages a number of L.A. schools where test results were poorest, dropout rates highest, suspensions rampant and parents dissatisfied.

L.A. Unified made a commitment in 2013 to institute restorative practices to all campuses by 2020. During this academic year, however, the district plans to invest only about $10.8 million in this goal out of more than $870 million in funds specifically to support disadvantaged kids. That’s a slight increase from $7.2 million invested last year, an amount critics argued was paltry in a district of more than 600,000 kids. Teachers in the district last year complained that not enough was invested in restorative initiatives, while at the same time they were expected to reduce suspensions.

Initially, in 2014, a draft accountability plan proposed shifting $13 million out of funds for disadvantaged students to the district’s large police force, which has an annual budget of about $57 million. The grassroots Labor-Community Strategy Center, which organizes students and parents, successfully fought that proposal. Between 2009 and 2011, citation data showed that school police were sending thousands of kids to court for tardiness and middle-school student fights, mostly from low-income areas like Watts.

Other district plans for $870 million in targeted money this year have broader support. There’s $145 million for “high need” campuses to beef up afterschool programs, counselors, and support for kids taking college-required classes. Another $115 million was slated to cut the size of math and English classes, link older kids to careers and prepare kindergarteners for reading. Some $70 million was budgeted to support English learners and libraries. About $15 million was earmarked to create learning plans for each foster child in the district, and $5.7 million is for hiring more psychiatric social workers. About $500 million goes right to campuses to invest.

Last spring, at Joyner’s campus, Williams’ students formed a restorative circle, and Williams asked them for their thoughts about “happy places.” Snuggling in a warm bed, one child said. The school library, a boy said, because “it’s soooo quiet.”

Williams then asked about places, real or imagined, that made them “shudder.” Kids giggled when classmates talked about Halloween, or roller coasters or going to middle school. One girl said she gets scared seeing a “crazy man” taking drugs near her home.

A boy took the talking stick and said: “There’s a secret place and a whole bunch of people hide bullets.” Boys and girls rose from seats at times to pat one another on the back and offer each other tissues if classmates looked sad.

About 37 percent of Joyner’s kids are classified as English learners, but Williams’ fifth graders spoke English with ease.    

“It’s like a relief,” student Melanie Sanchez said of the circles. “Whatever happens in circle, say people say something very personal, everything stays inside the circle.”

“In math,” Melanie also said, “we really didn’t have the confidence to talk about to speak in front of our classmates.” But after kids got used to speaking in circles, she said, teachers didn’t have to make kids pick sticks to try to get them to talk.  

“I agree with her,” said Ricardo Vargas, Melanie’s classmate. “Because at first we didn’t really have trust in one another — to stand up and say we know the answer [and] this is how I found it. But now we feel like we can express our feelings and talk to each other.”

Eleanor Bell Fox/ Center for Public Integrity

Fifth graders in Raquel Williams’ class develop bonds and empathy during circles, Williams says.

Joyner appears to be making progress. Seventy percent of third-graders in 2015 scored “standard not met” in English language arts. Last year, as fourth-graders, the proportion of students who scored at the bottom was 59 percent, an improvement. In math, 64 percent were below standard in 2015, and 49 percent below in 2016.

One of the foundational LCFF principles is for schools to show “continuous improvement.” No longer will schools be threatened with takeover by the state strictly because of test scores. The State Board of Education envisions its evaluation rubric — an annual school “report card” — as empowering parents with information so they can demand attention to failings. The report cards will reveal how well students are doing on proficiency tests, graduation and college readiness rates, but also the progress schools are making with parent engagement, school climate and suspension rates.

Brenda Ponce, a Watts native and mother of a first- and a third-grader, volunteers at Joyner and believes restorative practices have made it a better school. And she’s happy that her kids are already talking about college—a goal she said no one discussed with her in Watts until she was almost done with high school. Joyner’s walls today are plastered with college pennants and inspirational slogans.

The rampant suspensions that plagued the school are now rare, Ponce said. “The children tend to want to study more,” she said. “And that’s a big difference from before.”

In 2010-2011, 15 percent of Joyner students were suspended at least once. In 2015-2016, that figure dropped to less than 2 percent. Joyner’s black students in 2010-2011 were disproportionately affected, with 32 percent of all African -American kids suspended at least once. That figure dropped to less than 5 percent last year.

Ponce said Joyner has also worked harder to involve parents. She helps organize support for parents who want to be able to help their children, including parents hesitant to speak up because their English is limited. “We give them ideas,” Ponce said. “If the kids want to use a tablet, here’s a reading application that they can use so they can learn to read.”

Spreading funding strategically

Just southeast of Watts and north of Compton, also known for its mean streets, Paul Gothold is the superintendent of the smaller Lynwood Unified School District: 14,776 students enrolled in 18 schools. The students are 96 percent disadvantaged, with a third classified as English learners.

The district developed a strategic plan six years ago that emphasized approaching “each child holistically.”

“A lot of the things were aspirations that we may not have had the money to afford, to be honest with you,” Gothold said. The new way of funding schools “has been beneficial to us without a doubt.” In 2013-2014, the district received an allotment of $103 million. The next year it received $120 million. And last school year, funding rose to $141.3 million. Its estimated full-funding target in 2020 will be $160.9 million.

The new money has been used for a variety of initiatives. Staff identified 2,000 families without health care and has since matched 1,500 to services. The district is working more intensively with programs like the National College Resource Foundation, which sends college mentors to work daily with kids, tutoring them and assisting with college planning. Another priority: college mentoring services specializing in working with African-American and Latino students.

“Whatever we need to do to make our kids feel connected at school,” Gothold said.

The district has also invested in coaches for teachers and in career technology classes organized into “academies” for biomedical science, engineering, culinary arts and television and film. It has expanded its student support division from three to 15 employees, and now has a restorative justice center. There are no at-home suspensions of kids. Instead, they’re matched to services.

In addition, Lynwood has used some of the extra cash to bring in new counselors for high schools and middle schools, two specific counselors for foster youth, nurses, psychiatric social workers, case managers to develop relationships with kids and families, athletic support and “credit recovery” so students can catch up and a variety of extra staff to work with English learners.

“Our philosophy in this district is simple: We’re going to prepare you for college,” Gothold said. “And if you decide not to go, it’s going to be your choice, but it’s not going to be the system.”

Graduation rates six years ago were under 60 percent. In 2015, Lynwood High’s rate was almost 89 percent, and the rate at Firebaugh High, also part of the district, was 90 percent. That same year, 47 percent of Lynwood and 49 percent of Firebaugh seniors had completed the requirements to apply to four-year state colleges — healthy comparative percentages for high-poverty schools.

Making school relevant

Back at Oakland High, the bell rang and case manager Percy Foster was ready, with tardy slips to hand to students as they entered — late. If students accumulate too many slips or they aren’t in class on time, there are consequences.

Eleanor Bell Fox/ Center for Public Integrity

Percy Foster is an Oakland High School case worker who helps students and families. The Oakland district is tapping into new state education dollars to help pay for case workers.

But not detention. Instead, they’re assigned to after-school Academic Hour, with tutoring and support to catch up on any missed assignments.

It’s a positive spin on undesirable behavior that Foster and another case manager created, part of the cultural remaking of this campus of mostly low-income African-American, Latino and Asian kids. Detention sounds like prison, the case managers decided.

“You’ll be doing your work during your Academic Hour,” Foster said. “You’ll be catching up on your assignments. When is detention ever used to do those things?”

Were it not for the LCFF, Foster might not be there.

The total amount of money drawn in by disadvantaged kids for the Oakland Unified School district this year is $66.6 million, on top of $292.2 million in base funding — a total of about $358.8 million.

Like other districts, Oakland is pouring new money into hiring more teachers and adding services to upgrade academics. But Oakland is also putting almost $2.3 million into “parent engagement,” nearly $3.7 million into restorative justice and other behavioral and emotional support, almost $1.4 million of this directly from funds for disadvantaged kids. About 34% of supplemental and concentration money is allocated directly to school sites and to programs. The earmarked money is supporting a full-time restorative justice coordinator at the Oakland High School campus. And it’s supporting some of the costs of case managers like Foster — who are critical to running the school, according to Oakland High Principal Matin Abdel-Qawi.

Oakland High has a menu of sports and clubs, but “street culture,” Abdel-Qawi said, has its lure, and he’s investing to create a “counter-narrative.”

“We’re talking about going to Google, going to Facebook, going to the Port of Oakland, going to several different organizations around the Bay Area that are important for our students to see,” the principal also said. “One of the things young people suffer from is lack of exposure to what’s available to them.”

One of the district’s deepest concerns is its abysmal on-time graduation rates for African-American students, who are 29 percent of enrollment, and Latino students, 45 percent of enrollment. Only about 56 percent of Latino students graduated in four years in 2015, compared to 83 percent of all seniors statewide. For African-American students, the on-time graduation rate fell just short of 61 percent.

Some metrics, though, have begun to move in the right direction.

The on-time graduation rate in 2015 for African-American males, for example, actually improved by 7 percentage points in just one year — jumping from almost 53 percent the year before to almost 60 percent. The district saw an even bigger surge in on-time graduation for foster youth, from about 34 percent to 58 percent.

The district attributes this gain to more engaging material, including those Manhood Development classes, and more emotional support. In fact, the Oakland district is so bullish on the success of African-American-focused curriculum and activities that this year it’s investing more than $1.6 million in a new Office of Equity to start replicating the model for Latino males and African-American females. More than $1.2 million of that investment comes from funding for disadvantaged kids.

At Oakland High, Manhood Development teacher Jenkins’ salary is partially paid for with these same funds. He’s also in charge of the new entrepreneurial Khepera Academy, an option for students with an African-American focus and links to local businesses. Heftty portions of the funding specifically for disadvantaged kids is boosting Pathway Programs, academies that match teens with potential career interests.

For Jenkins and Abdel-Qawi, the bottom line is basic: Black boys don’t see themselves enough in a positive light. Jenkins and Abdel-Qawi believe African-American boys benefit from time with role models, and from access to history — back to the contributions of Africa — which hasn’t always been emphasized.

Eleanor Bell Fox/ Center for Public Integrity

Oakland High Principal Matin Abdel-Qawi says new state funding has helped him hire more teachers and finance innovative ideas.

“When we come in thinking about ourselves and thinking about our place in this country, what happens is we start thinking about ourselves as a slave first,” Jenkins said. “There’s no reference to the old kingdoms and dynasties of Africa at all.”

“The only thing we get to hear about is maybe a little bit of Egypt,” he said, “a couple of pyramids, and then boom, the slave trade.”

Josiah Harris, 14, took versions of the Manhood Development class in seventh grade and eighth grade. He also joined a leadership group associated with the district’s office of African-American Male Achievement. He said the courses were a “a brotherly space” he’d never found before in a classroom setting.

“Brothers can go in there and feel love. They can go in there and feel they can’t be stopped,” Josiah said. “We have a man to talk to about certain stuff. We can let out our feelings.”

Between African-American literature and Manhood Development and the Khepera Academy curriculum, students can satisfy English and elective courses they need for eligibility to apply to four-year state colleges.

Jenkins’ class — for which there’s a waiting list — makes time for students to get personal about being black males. Students conduct research and write essays, but Jenkins also keeps things loose with techniques like rewarding boys with fake money for exceptional work. The cash can be traded for snacks. “It translates into a life lesson,” Jenkins said. “It builds up the work ethic.”

Senior Sky Lowe took Jenkins’ class as a 10th-grader and thinks all kids should get their history with diverse perspectives. “I thought it was more of a fun way to relax,” he said, “and just be happy in school.” He says there were times he thought he wouldn’t make it to school, but thought: “I’ll go—because I don’t want to miss Earnest today.”

Sky’s family has moved repeatedly, resorting to shelters and staying with relatives because of high housing costs in the Bay Area. He’s had to scrape for city bus money to get to school, and a stipend from an internship with Californians for Justice buys basic needs. The 17-year-old serves on a student advisory committee at Oakland High that holds brainstorming sessions about what they, students, would like to see schools invest in using the new money from the state.

Geordee Mae Corpuz, the former college-prep advisor, advises that committee.

“Even if a school can’t solve the family problems a kid may have, can’t provide a job for parents or a place to live,” Sky said, “how can schools help the student still engage at school and do well?”

Part of the answer: Percy Foster.

As classes were changing, Foster cruised halls, checking with kids. Why was a boy in a shirt that said “Trouble Follows Me” not in his seat? How was that kid doing who’d been in the juvenile justice system? He corralled a boy who’s a talented artist and told him to consider careers in digital media. He helped calm two girls who got in a screaming match. He answered texts endlessly from both parents and students. Every student is assigned a case manager when they enter Oakland High. Not every kid needs help. But many do.

“I’ve seen the worst kids make turnarounds,” said Foster.

“We’re dealing with grades — grades not being good, how to get them back up. Transportation issues to and from school,” Foster said. “Pregnancies, to not having somewhere to live, lunch money, daily food, whatever.” Kids, he said, “really want somebody to really listen to them and really act on their behalf.”

Jenkins and Foster have the credibility of being Oakland natives— they’ve cruised the same streets as these kids. “You’re somebody they can connect with,” Jenkins said. “You’re not something that popped off the TV. You’re authentic.”

Eleanor Bell Fox/ Center for Public Integrity

Tenth grade Manhood Development class students at Oakland High absorb a discussion about college admissions.

Oakland’s own tracking since more funding began rolling in shows the percentage of graduates completing required college courses is up, from just below 40 percent in 2014 to almost 46 percent in 2015. The district also exceeded its goal to increase the percentage of third-graders reading on or above grade level by five points each year.  Other benchmarks are headed north as well. Suspensions of black male students have dropped by more than half in six years, and juvenile lockups have dropped by 40 percent.

Principal Abdel-Qawi is encouraged.

“I have to believe that the funding that we have is enough for what we need to do to change the trajectory of some of our young people from the streets to the university,” he said. “I have to believe that we can create the climate and culture for all of our young people to be successful.”

On Nov. 9, Californians weighed in with their own vote of confidence. They passed Proposition 55, a measure that extends the 2012 temporary income tax hike on the wealthy that helped fire up the school funding revolution. The measure extends those taxes for 12 years, until 2030.  

A lot of folks will be watching what that extra investment in disadvantaged districts yields — watching not only here in California, but across the country as well.

This story was supported by a grant from Solutions Journalism Network.

Los Angeles 1992: A Personal Reflection

… northwest Altadena, a mostly African American neighborhood with high rates … was personally affected by, racism, classism and homophobia. … Martin. We saw an African American surgeon harassed and … more videos of unarmed African Americans being killed by police … RankTribe™ Black Business Directory News

CAAM deputy director wins national prize for African American art history

For her contributions to the preservation of African American art, the deputy director of the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, Naima Keith, has been awarded the 2017 David C. Driskell Prize.

The Driskell Prize, from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, is the first award to recognize entry- or mid-level career artists and scholars who have made important contributions to African American art or art history. Established in 2005, it’s named after the artist and African American art scholar and comes with a $25,000 award.

“Like Professor Driskell, I am committed to supporting, exhibiting, and producing scholarship about artists of the African Diaspora,” Keith said by email.

“With the support of the award, I will carry on my work at the California African American Museum, where I am overseeing an array of strategic initiatives, as well as critical interventions that examine African American art, history, and culture, and also redefine the contours of American art and history in general.”

RankTribe™ Black Business Directory News – Arts & Entertainment

Week in review: Chicago cops shot, Obama reveals library design and GOP celebrates health vote

Here are some of the top stories you may have missed this week (Sunday, April 30 through Friday, May 5).

2 Chicago cops wounded in Back of the Yards attack

Two Chicago police officers were wounded Tuesday night when two vehicles pulled up alongside their unmarked van and being firing at them in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, police said.

One officer was hit in the arm and the other in the back, Rosemary Regina Sobol, Tony Briscoe, Jeremy Gorner and Elvia Malagon report.

Their injuries were not life-threatening, officials said.

The bill would have a profound effect on thousands in Illinois, where 1 in 4 residents are on Medicaid, which faces reduced funding. It could also affect people who get insurance through their employer, reports Lisa Schencker.

Tribune’ voices weigh in: Mary Schmich took issue with some Republicans’ contention that good health is contingent on morality. Rex Huppke writes that Trumpcare can be boiled down to one sentence: “I got mine, Jack, you’re on your own.” Heidi Stevens writes that the man who brought Chicago its first Ronald McDonald House is a guiding light in the health care fight.

Feeling cheated: Bears quarterback Mike Glennon, signed to an $18.5 million free agent contract, was the guest of honor at the Miller Lite Bears draft party at Soldier Field last week, where he promptly watched the team trade up to take a quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick. Glennon reportedly felt as though he had been cheated on, sources told Rich Campbell.

Broken trophy: The Cubs’ World Series trophy suffered minor injuries during team President Theo Epstein’s benefit concert in Boston, reports Paul Skrbina.

Stray bullet: A woman attending a St. Louis Cardinals game at Busch Stadium on Tuesday was hit in the arm with a stray bullet, police said.

Racist slurs at Fenway: Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones said he was the target of racial slurs during a game in Boston this week, an event that doesn’t surprise Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward, who said it’s common in other cities, reports Mark Gonzales. Former Red Sox star Curt Schilling, meanwhile, accused Jones of lying about the incident.

Woke women: Several Chicagoans, including cultural critic Luvvie Ajayi and activist Veronica Morris-Moore, made the list of “100 woke women” in the May issue of Essence magazine, writes Heidi Stevens.

Will Hurd Is the Future of the GOP*

HELOTES, Texas—Drenched in yellow light and red fog, Robert Earl Keen scratches at his guitar and unloads the lyrics to his trademark anthem with several thousand boot-and-cowboy-hat-clad Texans howling along in delirium. This is the grand finale on a warm Saturday night at Floore’s Country Store, among the holy sites in the “Texas Country” music scene, and I’m likely the only soul here who doesn’t know the words. Luckily, it’s not hard to catch on; at the end of each of the eight stanzas, Keen and his mob of devotees belt out the line that made him famous around these parts: The road goes on forever, and the party never ends.

The song isn’t especially deep or meaningful—it’s the story of two small-town social misfits who fall in love, arrange a meeting with Cuban drug dealers, steal their money, then kill the lawman who catches them, only to end with Sonny in the electric chair and Sherry driving a new Mercedes Benz—but the chorus provides an ideal thematic backdrop for a meeting of my own.

Story Continued Below

Drifting amid the sea of bodies in the poorly lit pavilion is Will Hurd, the congressman who represents Texas’ behemoth 23rd District, which stretches from this suburb north of San Antonio, all the way to El Paso some eight hours west. Of the 36 congressional districts in Texas, 35 are safely controlled by Republicans or Democrats; Hurd’s is the outlier. Not only is his district the biggest in the state—encompassing 58,000 square miles, covering all or parts of 29 counties, and including 820 miles of U.S.-Mexico border—it’s easily the most competitive, with both parties pumping millions of dollars into the 23rd every election cycle. Hurd has agreed to let me drive with him across his district; over the next three days we will traverse infinite stretches of flat and long-forgotten highway, zigzagging between dusty outposts for discussions with constituents and local officials about issues as remote as the real estate they occupy. This is all part of the routine for Hurd, who, as a Republican in a 71 percent Hispanic district, must wage what is essentially a continuous, day-in-and-day-out campaign to keep his job. Serendipitously, before we depart on this odyssey, he wants to acquaint me with the stylings of Robert Earl Keen. The road goes on forever, and the party never ends.

Hurd is a 6’4” black guy at a country music concert; he’s also a federal lawmaker who has become increasingly recognizable since winning his first term in 2014. Yet he mostly succeeds in not standing out. Keen salutes him from the stage halfway through his set, and a bunch of attendees—including two border patrol officers—stop him for a handshake. Otherwise, Hurd keeps a low profile, singing to himself and dancing with his girlfriend, Lynlie Wallace, who serves as chief of staff to state Rep. Lyle Larson and is currently running for a seat on the San Antonio City Council. Hurd, who is just shy of 40, grew up not far from here and today lives a few miles from this venue—close enough, he tells me after one of his staff members introduces us and hands me a Miller Lite from a red cooler, to hear these concerts from home. “Call me Will” is the first thing he says, which I dismiss as an aw-shucks tactic powerful people use to come across as everyday men. It’s not until our trip ends that I realize nobody along the way—judges, construction workers, random constituents, his own staffers—has called the congressman anything except “Will.”

The informality suits him: Hurd doesn’t go out of his way to impress people, as he himself is not easily impressed. His foray into electoral politics was inspired by briefings he conducted with congressional members while working as an undercover CIA operative in the Middle East. More than once he encountered lawmakers who didn’t grasp basic facts about the region like the distinction between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Hurd concluded that their constituents were being represented by nincompoops. (“It’s OK for my brother not to know the difference between Sunni and Shia,” Hurd likes to say, “because he sells cable for a living.”) So he quit the agency after nearly a decade and came home, to Texas, launching a long-shot bid in 2010. He won the most votes in the district’s Republican primary but lost the runoff. After retreating to the private sector—utilizing his intelligence and technological expertise to make some serious money as a cybersecurity adviser—he ran again in 2014, this time winning the GOP nomination and defeating incumbent Democratic Congressman Pete Gallego by roughly 2,400 votes. The outcome surprised strategists in both parties; Gallego, a Hispanic former lawyer, had represented much of the congressional district as a state lawmaker and was much better known in the area. Democrats felt certain they’d win a rematch in 2016 with presidential-year turnout—and that was before Trump won the GOP nomination. And yet somehow, despite Trump alienating Hispanics, despite Clinton winning the district by 4 percentage points, despite turnout nearly doubling between 2014 and 2016, Hurd won reelection, this time by just over 3,000 votes.

Democrats rationalize their defeat like this: The district is unfairly drawn to the GOP’s advantage; Clinton failed to inspire low-propensity Hispanic voters; Gallego didn’t raise sufficient money or hustle hard enough. There is, however, another explanation: Hurd is a phenom. Republicans and Democrats who have witnessed his ascent say he possesses a rare combination of competence as a policymaker, responsiveness as a representative and ferocity as a campaigner. Consider that during his first term—with Barack Obama, a Democrat, still occupying the White House—Hurd authored more bills that were signed into law than any other member of Congress. (Most aren’t “sexy” bills of national interest, he says, but rather targeted toward his constituents, such as winning overtime pay for the Border Patrol.) Meanwhile, the freshman lawmaker found time to systematically explore every parcel of his district, assemble a staff that quickly became known as one of the most effective on Capitol Hill, and raise copious sums of money to power a reelection bid that some in his party had privately written off.

“He’s a survivor. He’s always fought upstream,” says James Aldrete, an Austin-based Democratic strategist who ran the Spanish-language media strategy for both Obama campaigns and Clinton 2016. “To be an African-American Republican in Texas is very rare. And to win, and then win again in a presidential year, which typically would swing the seat back into our corner, and to win with Trump at the top of the ticket, who’s not being helpful to him, and he’s able to distance himself from Trump while increasing his margin of victory …” Aldrete stops himself. He had pledged at the outset of our talk not to get carried away flattering Hurd on the record, and seemed disappointed in himself. “You’ve just got to give him credit,” Aldrete quietly concludes.

Republicans have no such qualms in gushing about his potential. “I’ve been involved in Republican politics for over 30 years, and Democrats should be worried about Will Hurd,” says Texas GOP Chairman Tom Mechler. “The sky is the limit. This guy is incredible.” Of course, that’s what any state party chairman worth his salt should say about a member of his congressional delegation. But the plaudits being showered on Hurd aren’t perfunctory—and they’re not just originating in Texas. When I told Kevin Seifert, the political consigliore to Speaker Paul Ryan who is responsible for raising tens of millions of dollars to protect the House Republican majority, that I was traveling to southern Texas for this story, he replied, “Will Hurd is my favorite member of Congress.”

There’s little for Republicans not to like: Hurd is a young, eloquent, dark-skinned, social media-savvy legislator who solves problems like a technocrat and speaks with an earned authority on national security. He is an intellectual asset to the party; the efficiency-obsessed Hurd, who wants to build a “cyber National Guard” of young computer whizzes to protect the nation’s digital infrastructure, has been communicating with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, pitching projects for the White House’s new Office of American Innovation. But Hurd is also unafraid of bucking the GOP and the president himself, especially in the interest of his district. He denounced Trump during the campaign, distancing himself in particular from the candidate’s rhetoric about Mexican immigrants. He voted against Ryan’s health care bill in early May, knowing the toll it would take on the many poor, isolated constituents he represents. And he has emerged as perhaps the most vocal opponent of Trump’s plan to build a wall along the southern border, which he argues would hurt trade, send the wrong message and fail to keep out intruders.

Washington is talking about Hurd as a bonafide superstar who could represent the future of the Republican Party—but first, he must continue to survive in one of America’s toughest congressional districts. Not only do Democrats have a price on his head; a federal court could redraw his district this summer to make it an even heavier demographic lift for Republicans. Hurd has already won twice under a map the court drew in 2013, and insists he’s not worried—“Go ahead, redraw the maps,” he says—but voting patterns there suggest he should be concerned.

“If you look at the history of this district, every single incumbent has gotten beat. There’s not one member from this district that has ever retired because he or she wanted to,” Gallego says, knowingly. “The same thing will happen to Will Hurd. It’s just a question of when.”

***

We’re seated around an old wooden table in a small dining room in a simple, teal-colored house, one in a string of bungalows that line a working-class street in the northwest corner of San Antonio. This is the house Hurd grew up in. His parents purchased it when he was a newborn nearly 40 years ago, and it wasn’t easy; Bob Hurd, who worked as a traveling salesman—and got used to being told, “We don’t let n—— in here” as he approached pharmacy counters—remembers the redlining practices that made buying a home a nightmare for a black man and his white wife in south Texas circa 1975. They had invited me for Easter brunch before the congressman and I head west, and as we sit down to eat following some brief introductions, I lob a polite softball to jump-start the conversation: “What’s it like having your son in Congress?”

Hurd’s mother, Mary Alice, does not hesitate. “It’s his problem, not mine,” she says. I almost spit out my orange juice at the unexpected hilarity of her response. But maybe she’s not joking. Mary Alice is expressionless as she digs into her plate of scrambled eggs, sausage links, grits and biscuits with butter. Hurd’s mother is a quiet woman with a shy smile, shoulder-length silver hair framing her round, bespectacled face. It’s obvious that she is proud of her son—framed photos and newspaper clippings adorn his old room—but it’s equally obvious that politics aren’t exactly part of the family’s DNA. The framed articles are from Texas A&M’s student publication, The Battalion, marking his ascent to student body president and his time in office, yet there is no trace of his election and reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Your ass is crazy,” Chuck Hurd recalls telling his brother when Will informed the family he was quitting the CIA to run for Congress after nine-and-a-half years as a covert operative. The Hurds were immensely proud of the dangerous and important work he was doing, and I got the distinct impression that they were less enamored of his political achievements. Chuck, the eldest of the three Hurd children—their middle sister, Liz, is away on vacation—is four inches shorter than his younger brother and probably 30 pounds heavier, built like a fullback and wearing a salt-and-pepper beard that makes him look the part of a blue-collar joe. (Clearly familiar with his brother’s Sunni-Shia quip, Chuck tells me he doesn’t merely sell cable, but is a sales manager who supervises other employees.)

If Chuck is straight out of central casting, so, too, is “William,” as everyone here calls him. Tall and well-built with broad shoulders and enormous hands, the congressman has thinning black hair that is receding and meticulously combed back in small, slick waves. This feature, when combined with the rectangular glasses that tend to slip toward the tip of his nose and the slight under-bite he has owned since childhood, give him the distinguished appearance of an oil-painted parliamentarian, especially when glancing downward to read remarks or jot down thoughts in the mysterious red notebook he carries in his jacket everywhere he goes.

And yet Hurd doesn’t always act the part. He cusses casually and laughs loudly, fitting in better with staff members than buttoned-down colleagues. He also talks with the slightest trace of a lisp from his childhood struggle with a speech impediment that had kids calling him “Hurd the Nerd,” a nickname that still makes him shudder. (“Now I’m 6’4”, 235 pounds, spent nine-and-a-half years in the CIA, and nobody messes with me,” he tells a lunchroom full of wide-eyed third-graders in Fort Stockton.)

Hurd swears this career was never in the cards. His parents were conservative people in a conservative part of a conservative state, but there was no cheerleading for either party or dinner-table discussions of electoral developments. “I wouldn’t say political talk was a staple of our house growing up,” he tells me after brunch, laughing. Bob Hurd, who at 84 gets around slowly but cooks a mean breakfast, tells me with a mischievous smirk that he likes to tell people he’s been a Republican “since Lincoln freed us,” but it’s clear there was no ideological indoctrination in the Hurd household. His youngest son identified with the GOP by cultural osmosis more than anything else, and found himself voting that way in college despite having no core set of political principles; his first presidential ballot, in 1996, was cast for Bob Dole over Bill Clinton—but only, Hurd says, because of Dole’s military service.

It’s hard to believe someone who ran for student body president did so without ideological conviction or future political aspiration. Hurd, however, insists he had neither. A computer-science major with a minor in international studies, he was set on attending Stanford only to fall in love with Texas A&M during a visit. The reason: its commitment to public service. Hurd didn’t join the corps of cadets, and he wasn’t politically active, but he threw himself into every other aspect of campus life. As a senior, he decided to mount an unlikely bid for student body president. He and some friends hoped for buzz by painting hundreds of ping-pong balls with his campaign logo—a black smile on a yellow face—and dumping them into the campus fountain. But the balls washed into one corner and went unnoticed. Hurd decided at that point to try something different: meeting as many students as possible, one-on-one, especially those without a history of voting. It worked: He won the election with record-breaking voter turnout. “I learned there’s no substitute for personal engagement,” he tells me.

There were more lessons ahead, but they came at a steep price. Hurd had just fallen asleep around 3:00 in the morning in November 1999 when the phone rang. It was a friend—the older sister of his current chief of staff, Stoney Burke—telling him something had happened at “Bonfire,” the Texas A&M tradition of building and burning a mountainous, wedding-cake-shaped structure of timber every year before the Aggies’ annual grudge match against the University of Texas. The logs had collapsed, killing 12 students on the construction crew and shattering the community. Hurd found himself thrust into the spotlight, speaking at a memorial service that same day and representing the school in national media interviews ranging from CNN to NPR.

He seems uncomfortable talking about the experience, particularly when I ask how it might have shaped his approach to leadership and politics. But it’s apparent that Hurd turned heads during that tragic period on campus. Bob Gates, the former CIA director and defense secretary, was serving as the interim dean of the university’s George Bush School of Government and Public Service in 1999. He remembers being in awe of “Will’s leadership skills, comforting people, bringing people together at a very difficult time for the university.” When Gates learned that Hurd—who was taking former CIA operative Jim Olson’s course, “Cold War Rhetoric and Intelligence”—was himself interested in joining the agency, they made a strong push on his behalf. Olson warned Hurd that he was unlikely to be recruited; he was young, had virtually no global experience and didn’t even speak a second language. Yet Olson, who had taken his teaching job at the insistence of then-CIA Director George Tenet and former President George H.W. Bush, forcefully vouched for his pupil. “Because he was well-read, because of his interpersonal skills, his proven leadership,” Olson remembers of the recommendation. “My job throughout my career was to evaluate and assess people. And Will just stood out.”

Gates and Olson were thrilled at Hurd’s recruitment, and through friends at the agency kept close tabs on their prized Aggie as he accepted dangerous assignments in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and elsewhere. Hurd learned Urdu, grew several styles of beards, and with his ethnically ambiguous features managed to blend into—and find his way out of—lots of dangerous situations. The feedback was universally glowing: Hurd was headed for a corner office at the CIA, and quickly. “He was really regarded as a rising star,” Gates tells me. “I had more than one conversation with people at the top”—he pauses—“They were very much aware of him.” Olson, for his part, says Hurd “had the potential to lead the organization in a very senior position.”

Gates and Olson, along with Hurd’s CIA colleagues, were stunned and disappointed by his departure—especially when they learned it was for a congressional run. They weren’t alone. “He could have done anything he wanted,” Chuck Hurd tells me. “And he went from dealing with one set of terrorists and thieves to dealing with another set of terrorists and thieves.” (The skill-set translates, as I learned when tracking Hurd off the House floor after his vote against the American Health Care Act. Seeing him on the phone but wanting a comment, I trailed him at a short distance as he weaved down a series of spiral staircases. He was five feet in front of me as we entered one final flight of stairs, yet when I emerged at the bottom—poof—he was gone.)

The shock of Hurd’s career change didn’t stop Chuck from being his brother’s most active campaign volunteer. (Will still chides him for not knowing what a primary was.) And it didn’t stop Gates from doing something he had never done. “Will is the only person I have ever formally endorsed — period,” he tells me. When I ask about Hurd’s potential, and the GOP’s high expectations for him, Gates doesn’t mask his own. “I have served eight presidents over a 50-year period,” he says, chuckling. “And I think it’s premature, but what I would say is he has the character and the integrity and the leadership skills for higher office.”

Mary Alice Hurd is less vague. More surprising than her earlier response is what she tells me when I ask where she expects her son to be in 10 or 15 years. “President,” she says.

***

“I’m sure you have stately feet, Sir.”

One day later, Hurd can’t decide whether to remove his shoes. The 23rd District looks like a deformed alligator whose wide-open jaws are chomping down on San Antonio from the west; we’ve traveled from its eyeball into its belly, the Monahans Sandhills State Park, where Hurd is shooting a video promoting the rolling dunes as a family vacation destination. Everything goes smoothly until Hurd reaches the scene where he’ll slide down a dune on a green plastic saucer. Walking across sand in expensive dress shoes isn’t a great option—just ask Richard Nixon—and neither is going barefoot. (Congressmen do have their dignity, after all.) But with a reporter watching—and Park Ranger Michael Smith promising no podiatric judgment—he can’t turn back. Hurd takes off his socks and shoes, steps onto the hot khaki sand, mumbles about his “fat ass” keeping the vehicle stationary and trudges to the top. His muttering proves prescient: Try as he might, Hurd’s sled won’t budge. (The ranger shouts that it’s the hot, sticky sand, then winks at me.) No matter. The shoot is a hit and Ranger Smith is ecstatic about the free publicity.

Of course, the park isn’t all Hurd is promoting. As a sophomore lawmaker who prior to running for Congress had never stepped foot in most of this district, shoeless or otherwise, Hurd is playing catch-up. One smart technique is to constantly advertise his visits via social media. On Sunday evening, he posts from Lum’s BBQ in Junction (population: 2,472), from a Davey Crockett statue he pulled off the highway to see in Ozona (population: 3,225) and then from a Dairy Queen just down the road. Hurd’s preferred app is SnapChat; he controls the “HurdOnTheHill” account entirely from his personal phone. He posts roughly a third of his own Instagram photos, while his staff handles his accounts on Twitter and Facebook. This system allows Hurd and his team to churn out a prodigious amount of mutually beneficial posts; constituents are happy because their schools and towns and businesses get free exposure, and Hurd is happy because he is engaging constituents every day who he otherwise might never reach.

The 23rd District poses unique challenges as a political constituency; its raw size makes true representation almost impossible. For Hurd, the overwhelming Hispanic population would seem especially problematic—he doesn’t speak Spanish, and doesn’t plan to learn it—but he says the bigger obstacle was transcending the district’s urban-rural divide. Having grown up in Bexar (pronounced “Bear”) County, home of metropolitan San Antonio, Hurd learned quickly in his first campaign that West Texans resented anyone from “the big city” barging into their towns without proper humility. “I had to learn to leave my suit at the Bexar County line,” he says.

This is still a work in progress. Hurd won in 2016 based on his dominance in Bexar County, where he topped Gallego by 14,000 votes. Democrats point out that Hurd lost the Hispanic vote district-wide, and rightly argue he would not have won without the Republican-heavy San Antonio suburbs. Hurd, though, won 18 of the other 28 counties that are part of the district, which suggests he hasn’t simply catered to college-educated whites. He can’t afford to: With Hispanics growing daily as a share of his voting-age constituency, and Trump proving historically unpopular early in his first term, Hurd must distance himself from the president and broaden his appeal in non-conservative precincts.

“There are a lot of second-generation people in this district, second-generation Hispanic immigrants who vote a straight Democratic ticket,” says Ruben Falcon, a councilman in Fort Stockton who is also the city’s former mayor and owner of Bienvenidos, Hurd’s favorite restaurant in the district. Falcon says he voted for both Clinton and Hurd last November, and believes the sophomore congressman is chipping away the trend of straight-ticket voting that could threaten his career. “You can tell when it’s just a bullshit handshake from a politician, and that’s not him,” Falcon says. “I think the thing that will save Will from the Trump haters is that he’s out here so much, making all these connections in these communities.”

In truth, Hurd has no choice. To survive here is to pursue every voter. That’s why we started the day in Monahans (population: 7,617), then headed to Pecos (population: 9,213) before driving back to Fort Stockton (population: 8,482), where we stayed the night before and which, with its thousands of hotel rooms, is known as the premier rest-and-refuel stop for anyone traversing these parts of Texas. Representing such far-flung, isolated areas can be torture for a politician; it also can be strangely rewarding. Hurd lights up when he talks about Loving County, which, with 95 residents (at last unofficial count), stakes its claim as the least-populated county in America. It’s a safely Republican area but Hurd was an unknown commodity when he first ventured there. “I’ve met all but 18 of them,” he tells me. “And those 18 people don’t want to be met.” Hurd won 30 of the 40 votes cast there in 2014, and 54 of its 64 votes two years later.

“He is a hard worker. He is extremely conscientious,” Ciro Rodriguez, the former Democratic congressman who represented the district from 2007 to 2011, says of Hurd. “I would disagree with him on his priorities and goals and objectives, but you have to admit, he’s a hard worker and he moves around and he’s responsive. He does all the right things from that perspective. Whoever runs against him has to match that.”

Democrats are well aware. Fed up with Gallego after his back-to-back losses and alleged lethargy compared to Hurd, they are turning to fresh faces. San Antonio federal prosecutor Jay Hulings is viewed as a prize recruit among national Democrats, but the primary could get crowded, especially if a friendlier map emerges. Emily’s List, the powerhouse pro-abortion-rights group that recruits female candidates, is said to be zeroing in on Judy Canales, a former Obama appointee who lives in Eagle Pass, as well as a mystery combat veteran from San Antonio.

Hard work is indeed necessary to win and protect a coin-flip district, but so too is the discipline—at least rhetorically—never to stray far from the middle of the electorate. Hurd, who is probably the least ideological politician I’ve ever met, had no trouble mastering this talent. At a roundtable with local officials in Monahans, Hurd emphasizes, as he does everywhere, that border security is a priority—but adds that building a wall is the “most expensive and least effective” way to achieve it. He strikes a disapproving tone on the Affordable Care Act, but tells them to “forget about the labels” of “repeal and replace” and says the only things he cares about are increasing access and decreasing costs. (It came as little surprise nearly three weeks later when he voted against Ryan’s legislation; Hurd staffers told me that day the office got hundreds of phone calls and only one was in favor.) And when asked about recent foreign policy developments, Hurd says he supported Trump’s missile strike in Syria—but speaks in cautionary tones about any American military intervention, especially on the Korean Peninsula, warning that North Korea has “the largest special forces in the world” and a leader who possesses “the capability and willingness to kill millions of people” across the border in South Korea.

Some of this, certainly, owes to Hurd’s natural pragmatism and nuance. But he’s also walking a tightrope at all times—and he knows it. The clearest (and funniest) example of this comes later Monday afternoon when, after a speech to a few dozen high school students in Pecos, Hurd asks for questions “on the CIA, Congress, robotics, anything.” The first student to raise his hand is a Hispanic kid who came in wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat. “What do you think about sanctuary cities?” he asks. Hurd grimaces. “You’ve got to enforce the law. It’s that simple,” he replies. Then, without so much as blinking, Hurd adds: “Let’s talk about robotics.”

Hurd’s obsession with cultivating a centrist brand explains the now-famous “road trip” from San Antonio to Washington he took in March with Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who represents the neighboring district anchored in El Paso. It was fascinating not simply for the display of bipartisanship, but for the organically funny banter between two young politicians so eager to be perceived as moderates that they jumped in the car without necessarily expecting they would come to genuinely admire one another after 30 hours together with thousands of people watching via livestream. “Will’s a great member of Congress,” O’Rourke said to the camera at one point. “And if I just allowed his party affiliation to determine whether or not we were going to work together, I wouldn’t be spending any time with him.”

Of course, this was a fuzzy sentiment wrapped in political calculation. The trip was O’Rourke’s idea, and within weeks he had launched his Senate campaign against GOP incumbent Ted Cruz; naturally he used the adventure with Hurd to sow narratives of his centrist inclinations and contrast them against his polarizing right-wing opponent. Cruz allies were somewhat annoyed, but Hurd laughs at the suggestion that he might have unwittingly aided O’Rourke’s effort to unseat his fellow Republican. “Look, a Democrat in Texas isn’t going to win a statewide election—period,” he says. “Did you tell Beto that?” I ask. Hurd grins. “He knows my opinion.”

I didn’t find one Republican complaining about Hurd helping O’Rourke. But a number of Democrats—who agree that Cruz can’t be beaten—privately grumbled about O’Rourke boosting the bipartisan bonafides of someone they have a better chance of unseating in 2018, and who they fear could grow into a force in future statewide and perhaps even national elections. The road trip, skeptics in both parties say, was more about campaign strategy than congressional bipartisanship. We all know what Beto O’Rourke got out of it. What about Will Hurd?

***

Two unusual things strike me about the Texas congressman. The first is that he employs numerous staff members who aren’t Republicans. His military and veteran caseworker, Jon, who lost a leg in Iraq (and has a wicked sense of humor about it) isn’t shy about denouncing the party. His district staffer, Jenny, who drove with us from San Antonio, smiles and shakes her head no when I ask if she’s a Republican. And his chief of staff, Stoney Burke, whom Hurd counts among his best friends and says will be “the only chief I’ll ever have,” used to work for Democrat Chet Edwards. When I ask Hurd about this, he looks surprised. Then he shrugs. “Your office is about getting things done for the district,” he says. “So it’s not a requirement.”

The second is that Hurd has no rehearsed answer to one of the easiest questions for a politician. After our thoroughly conviction-free discussion of how he came to identify as a Republican, I ask him which political figures were his inspirations and influences. This is a robotic answer for most everyone in his party: Ronald Reagan. And yet Hurd, despite growing up during the 1980s, struggles to produce a response. Finally, he settles on two figures: Teddy Roosevelt and George Washington. Solid choices, to be sure; they’re half of Mt. Rushmore. But neither governed in the past century nor preached any sort of ideology that translates to today’s political scene.

If anything, Hurd seems fundamentally distrustful of the GOP—especially its conservative most elements—when it comes to the treatment of women, minorities, gays, poor people and other groups. Its worst tendencies, he seems to believe, are embodied by Trump—which is maddening given they will share a ballot for the foreseeable future. “Do I have control over what he says? No,” Hurd says. “Do I have to talk that way? No. And I’m not going to.”

In some sense, Hurd’s high-profile stand against the border wall isn’t just about the wall itself. Yes, he passionately believes that a “virtual barrier”—cutting-edged fiber optic cables and high-definition cameras complimenting a few urban stretches of see-through fence, all monitored by a beefed up border-patrol monitoring the border—is a wiser use of money and a better way to protect the homeland. But he’s not entirely unique in this regard; most Texas Republicans oppose Trump’s sweeping proposal on the border. “Not even Ted Cruz, who is an idiot, and a Canadian, would agree to build that kind of wall in Texas,” Rodriguez tells me.

Hurd’s fight against the wall is sincere, but it doubles as a symbolic show of defiance against a president whose rhetoric offends his constituents and whose policies on immigration and NAFTA threaten their livelihoods in a region where the flow of people and goods underpins the economy. (To drive this point home, Hurd’s staff arranges a trip across the border to Juárez on my final day in the district. We visit a technology incubator where American teenagers are working alongside their Mexican counterparts on computer chips and Hurd, both a science geek and a promoter of international commerce, can’t hide his satisfaction.)

At one point, driving along a barren freeway with oil rigs toiling to our right, I ask Hurd how he can reconcile his approach with that of Trump, the leader of his party. “Well, he’s a member of the party,” Hurd says. “Just because somebody is in my party doesn’t mean I can’t be critical—I’ve been pretty clear about that. Yes, he’s the titular head of the party. But he’s just one person. And I completely disagree with people who say he’s the standard-bearer. There’s a lot of people that represent the Republican brand and conservatism.”

But doesn’t Trump speak for the party, I ask? “Shit, I don’t know,” Hurd says. “My thing is this: sphere of influence, sphere of control. What do I have control over? I have control over my actions and being an example to people. So that’s what I spend time on. What does that mean for the broader party?” He takes another pause. “I look to good examples in the party, people like John Cornyn. That guy is really a great example of someone that people should grow up to be like.”

It’s an intriguing answer, because some people think Cornyn—the senior senator from Texas, the more moderate counterpart to Cruz, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate—is exactly who Hurd wants to grow up to be like. Whether Cornyn retires in 2020 or seeks another six-year term is the subject of intensifying speculation back home. If he leaves, Hurd could very well be his preferred successor. But this is where the tightrope routine could backfire: Texas is loaded with ambitious conservatives who are circling any open statewide office like vultures, and Hurd has cut such a moderate profile to survive in his own district that he might be rendered unacceptable to the right in a Republican primary.

“That definitely affects his ability to run statewide,” says César Blanco, a Democratic state representative who formerly served as chief of staff to both Gallego and Rodriguez, and who is widely expected to run for O’Rourke’s seat. Aldrete, the Obama and Clinton alum, says his party can only hope that conservatives crowd Hurd out of future races. “The fact that he’s stymied because of them would be very helpful to Democrats.”

Hurd is well aware of this potential predicament and laughs at the early handicapping of his future. “Coynyn’s my boy. I’ve learned a lot from him,” he says. “He’s been incredibly helpful. And I think he’s been underappreciated. … But I’m not plotting chess pieces. I evaluate opportunities as they arise.”

He’s clearly thinking ahead, though. At one point, Hurd engages me in a long conversation about demographics and my experience covering the presidential campaign in key primary states. To the extent he’s making long-term chess moves, they are based on where the party—and his state—will be. And here’s where Hurd hints at larger aspirations, arguing that the state’s demographic transformation will produce a demand for more mainstream politicians. “Remember, everybody in Texas used to be Democrats,” he says. “The tug-of-war will be over the center. My hypothesis is that 80 percent of Americans are around the center—40 percent left of center, 40 percent right of center—and they’re all persuadable.” A minute later, Hurd adds, “I just don’t accept the premise that to win a primary you have to be the person furthest to the right.”

He appears certain to test it sooner or later. Hurd is too young, too talented, too ambitious not to push the limits and enter the arena with bigger and better competition. But first, he has to hang onto the toughest seat in Texas, one of the toughest in America, where Democrats will continue to invest millions of dollars in hopes of taking it back and kneecapping his rapid ascent inside the Republican Party. Hurd, whose twin goals in Congress are to be a leader on national security and “the gold standard in constituent services,” is growing more confident every single day, with every new social media post and every new voter he meets, that this district belongs to him.

“If you want it,” Hurd says, “come and get it.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece misspelled the name of the music venue where Robert Earl Keen performed. It is Floore’s Country Store.

Tim Alberta is national political reporter at Politico Magazine.

L.A. Riots 25th Anniversary- California African American Museum

Please enable Javascript to watch this video

Please enable Javascript to watch this video

Please enable Javascript to watch this video

Please enable Javascript to watch this video

Gayle Anderson was live in at the California African American Museum to see the exhibition “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE: LA 1992,” an exhibition that examines the episodes of urban unrest in American history following the March 3, 1991, Rodney King event that led the California Highway Patrol on a high speed chase that concluded with a struggle, during which some of the officers beat King with their batons.  April 29, 1992, when a predominantly white jury acquitted the four officers accused in King’s beating, rage turned to violence.

Also, “TROUBLE EVERY DAY: LA 1965/1992,” which is about the music that has always been an integral part of the African American experience. Documentaries on the Civil Rights Movement frequently highlight important albums and concerts, and for many people, listening to jazz, R&B, and hip-hop has animated learning about African American history. Amidst the fighting and frustration of the 1965 Watts Rebellion, the aggravation of the 1992 LA Uprisings, and all that ensued in the intervening years, the radio played on, broadcasting music by Horace Tapscott, Sam Cooke, Ice Cube, Elaine Brown, 2Pac, Watts Prophets, and Charles Wright, among many others. “Trouble Every Day: LA 1965/1992”  is an immersive listening environments presented in conjunction with “No Justice, No Peace: LA 1992”  to highlight the music of civil rights struggles.

Free Admission!
No Justice, No Peace
California African American Museum
600 State Drive
Exposition Park
Los Angeles
(213) 744-7432

If you have questions, or complaints, please feel free to contact me at Gayle.Anderson@KTLA.com or call 1-323-460-5732. I will reply as soon as I can.

Thank you for watching!

Gayle

More than 150 UWF students participated in the United Way’s Day of Caring

CLOSE

UWF students participate in the United Way’s Day of Caring on Friday at Wayside Park in Pensacola. Anne Delaney/adelaney@pnj.com

Tim Land’s beard was covered with small wood chips.

Land, an employee with the city of Pensacola Parks and Recreation Department, was using a power tool to clear excess branches from trees Friday in Wayside Park.

Other pieces of wood stuck to Land’s sweaty forearms as he was followed by a handful of eager University of West Florida students, who removed the small pile of branches.

Land and the approximately 160 UWF students spent two hours beautifying the park as part of the United Way of Escambia County’s 24th Day of Caring.

More than 1,300 volunteers from different businesses and organizations worked on 89 projects.

“It was 89 projects worth of crazy, which is all very good,” United Way of Escambia County President and CEO Andrea Krieger said.

Krieger said at several sites she visited there were more volunteers than the initial estimate. Krieger said she had a head count of 50 for Wayside Park. The total was more than doubled with two groups of UWF students showing up.

Krieger said 1,000 volunteers is the average for the Day of Caring. She attributed the higher numbers this year to the volunteers meeting in advance with members of the agency or project they were going to serve.

“You get inspired once you know the partner and you realize you can stop what you’re doing at the office and care about the community,” Krieger said.

Land, who is the parks and recreation department’s volunteer outdoor pursuits coordinator, was participating in the Day of Caring for the third time.

“The biggest thing is opening up the park,” he said. “If you’re driving into Pensacola from Gulf Breeze, it’s the first city park they see. It’s an entrance to Pensacola, and it’s a park that needs TLC.

Other UWF students carried garbage bags around to clean up the grounds while others painted the picnic pavilions.

Twenty-one-year-old junior Joshua Darnes and two UWF friends cleaned up sidewalks near the parking lot and loaded the dirt and debris into a wheelbarrow.

Darnes, sophomore Jamarkus Guest and senior DiCarlo Thomas are members of the university’s chapter of Collegiate 100, a break-off group of the service organization 100 Black Men of America.

Darnes was born and raised in Pensacola, he graduated from Pensacola High School in 2013, and he has strong feelings about his hometown.

“I love my city,” Darnes said. “It’s a city to love. A lot of people come here (to Wayside Park) to chill, to let loose. You look at the water and what more could you want?”

Show Thumbnails
Show Captions

Read or Share this story: http://on.pnj.com/2eBquaP

UWF students pitch in for United Way

CLOSE

UWF students participate in the United Way’s Day of Caring on Friday at Wayside Park in Pensacola. Anne Delaney/adelaney@pnj.com

Tim Land’s beard was covered with small wood chips.

Land, an employee with the city of Pensacola Parks and Recreation Department, was using a power tool to clear excess branches from trees Friday in Wayside Park.

Other pieces of wood stuck to Land’s sweaty forearms as he was followed by a handful of eager University of West Florida students, who removed the small pile of branches.

Land and the approximately 160 UWF students spent two hours beautifying the park as part of the United Way of Escambia County’s 24th Day of Caring.

More than 1,300 volunteers from different businesses and organizations worked on 89 projects.

“It was 89 projects worth of crazy, which is all very good,” United Way of Escambia County President and CEO Andrea Krieger said.

Krieger said at several sites she visited there were more volunteers than the initial estimate. Krieger said she had a head count of 50 for Wayside Park. The total was more than doubled with two groups of UWF students showing up.

Krieger said 1,000 volunteers is the average for the Day of Caring. She attributed the higher numbers this year to the volunteers meeting in advance with members of the agency or project they were going to serve.

“You get inspired once you know the partner and you realize you can stop what you’re doing at the office and care about the community,” Krieger said.

Land, who is the parks and recreation department’s volunteer outdoor pursuits coordinator, was participating in the Day of Caring for the third time.

“The biggest thing is opening up the park,” he said. “If you’re driving into Pensacola from Gulf Breeze, it’s the first city park they see. It’s an entrance to Pensacola, and it’s a park that needs TLC.

Other UWF students carried garbage bags around to clean up the grounds while others painted the picnic pavilions.

Twenty-one-year-old junior Joshua Darnes and two UWF friends cleaned up sidewalks near the parking lot and loaded the dirt and debris into a wheelbarrow.

Darnes, sophomore Jamarkus Guest and senior DiCarlo Thomas are members of the university’s chapter of Collegiate 100, a break-off group of the service organization 100 Black Men of America.

Darnes was born and raised in Pensacola, he graduated from Pensacola High School in 2013, and he has strong feelings about his hometown.

“I love my city,” Darnes said. “It’s a city to love. A lot of people come here (to Wayside Park) to chill, to let loose. You look at the water and what more could you want?”

Show Thumbnails
Show Captions

Read or Share this story: http://on.pnj.com/2eBquaP

NIH Study Shows Exercise May Lower Risk Of High Blood Pressure In African Americans

nih_high_blood_pressure_management

Nationwide (BlackNews.com) — Researchers who study cardiovascular health have long known that exercise is one way to keep high blood pressure at bay. But studies confirming this protective effect have mainly focused on white patients, leaving it unclear whether African Americans, the most vulnerable of all populations, have stood to gain in similar ways.

In a new study, researchers are reporting the strongest evidence to date that moderate to vigorous exercise, when done regularly, can help reduce the risk of hypertension in African Americans. The study, which was published in the journal Hypertension, was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD). Both are part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Although the protective effect of exercise had been well-documented in white populations, it really had not been clearly demonstrated for African Americans, said study co-author Nicole Redmond, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., a medical officer with the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences at NHLBI. This is a wake-up call to African Americans about the need for regular exercise and its importance in preventing high blood pressure.

The good news, she added, is that hypertension is a health problem that is both preventable and treatable.

African Americans have the highest rate of high blood pressure over any other racial or ethnic group in the United States  as much as 50 percent higher than whites and Hispanics. And the fallout is profound: High blood pressure greatly raises the risk for heart attack, stroke and kidney disease, and when uncontrolled, it can lead to death.

Yet, while health care providers have long recommended exercise as one way to keep this potentially debilitating condition at bay, researchers have never closely studied the specific impact of exercise on the population most vulnerable to it. Until now.

For the observational study, Redmond and her fellow researchers followed 1,311 men and women who are participants in the Jackson Heart Study, the largest, community-based study of cardiovascular disease and its risk factors in African Americans. The participants were, on average, in their late 40s when the Jackson, Miss.-based study began in 2000. None of them had hypertension at the time. The participants were then followed for eight years and surveyed about their physical activities throughout.

At the end of the study period, the researchers found that nearly 50 percent of the participants had developed hypertension. But those who reported higher levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity had a significantly lower risk of hypertension, compared to those who did not exercise at all. Specifically, those who reported intermediate levels of physical activity less than the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise based on the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans had a 16 percent lower rate of hypertension, while those who reported ideal levels of physical activity  an average of 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise or at least 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise had a 24 percent lower rate, the study showed.

“We’ve long known that exercise is an important part of controlling blood pressure,” said Redmond. “Now, thanks to this invaluable finding from the Jackson Heart Study, we can say that the same applies to African American men and women. It’s a potentially lifesaving message that everyone needs to follow.”

Redmond acknowledged that getting people to boost their exercise levels weekly can be a challenge. Barriers to establishing an exercise routine include lack of access to parks and streets that are perceived as safe; competing demands for time (such as work, child care responsibilities and commuting time); and for many women, concerns about hair care.

But you don’t have to run a marathon, Redmond pointed out. For now, including moderate or intensive exercise as part of a daily routine of good self-care is a great start. For example, brisk walking, stair walking, cycling and recreational tennis all meet standards for moderate activity when done for at least 10 consecutive minutes at a time at a pace that gets you breathing harder and your heart beating faster, Redmond said. You don’t have to do all your exercise at once: Exercising 10 minutes at a time, three times a day adds up to 30 minutes a day. Vigorous exercise, including activities such as jogging, aerobics and swimming, as well as competitive sports such as basketball, volleyball and soccer, meet those standards, too.

“Other exercise options include taking a brisk walk around the neighborhood (or an indoor shopping mall in bad weather), working out to an exercise DVD or joining a fun-filled exercise group, such as a Zumba® or Jazzercise® class or a running group. Do what works best for your lifestyle and budget. If the goal is to help lower blood pressure, exercise that gets the heart rate up is critical,” Redmond said.

So don’t forget to exercise regularly. It could change or even save  your life.

Note to Editors: April Is National Minority Health Month.

Comments

Steeped in Houstry

NEIL Gunn’s river was my starting point for an enjoyable morning among the brochs and standing stones of south-east Caithness. Along the way I discovered roads I’d never cycled on before and managed a quick detour to the coast to watch some puffins on a sea-stack.

Before setting off on the bike from the mill car park, I took a short stroll alongside the Dunbeath Water – setting for Gunn’s much-loved novel Highland River, published 80 years ago – as far as the footbridge to the old Milton inn. Even on an overcast day like this, it’s a beautiful spot.

Then I had a look at the Dunbeath Broch, one of the best-preserved defensive towers of its kind in the county. Wide stone steps lead up to the secluded site, surrounded by trees. From the entrance there’s a fine view back along the strath.

This whole area is steeped in history – nearby is Chapel Hill, or the House of Peace, believed to be site of an early monastery – but this wasn’t a day for lingering. Collecting the bike, I made my way up a short section of the A9 before turning onto the Houstry road, going past an engineering workshop and a scattering of croft houses where I slowed down to allow an unconcerned hen to cross safely.

The landscape opened up nicely, with the Burn of Houstry twisting and turning down to my left and the high hills forming a blue-grey barrier across the southern horizon. Although officially well into spring, there had been some snow earlier in the week and white streaks zigzagged down the slopes of Scaraben.

Near the end of the Houstry road my attention was caught by a mighty standing stone in a corner of a field, so I stopped to take some photos (being careful not to step in the marshy bits). Just beyond here there’s a junction with a dead end ahead so I turned right towards Smerral. I was pleased to be on Caithness roads that were entirely new to me – although I didn’t particularly relish the climb over the northern flank of Cnoc Breac. I’m about as far removed from King of the Mountains as it’s possible to get, and I don’t mind admitting that I got off and pushed on the steepest part. Charging down the other side was a breeze, of course.

Following the road round to the left, I took a sharp left again at the Upper Smerral farm sign. Now I was heading due north, more or less following the course of the Burn of Latheronwheel. There were crofts and bungalows dotted around here are there, but no vehicles whatsoever. Crossing the burn at Den Moss, I veered left for a short and steep final half-mile before joining the Thurso/Latheron section of the A9 – better known as the Causewaymire (“Cassymire”).

I passed the site of the former Latheron poorhouse (there are some sad stories associated with that place) and before long the large expanse of Loch Rangag was looming ahead on my left. It had started drizzling, but all the same I was keen to stop and have a closer look at the grass-covered broch that juts out like a crannog from the lochside. As those enterprising people at the Caithness Broch Project like to point out, there are more broch sites in the county than anywhere else in Scotland and this aspect of our ancient history deserves to be promoted as widely as possible.

I got off the bike, edged through a wooden gate and picked my way down through some boggy ground to the water’s edge. This particular broch has an intriguing pseudonym: Castle Greysteil, named after a knight in a medieval poem, some kind of epic saga involving the black arts and a magic sword.

Just north of Loch Rangag I took a right turn onto the Lybster road (watching out for fast-moving traffic at the junction) and was relieved to be back on the quieter byways. Loch Stemster lay before me, with the Achavanich standing stones just beyond. There are more than 30 stones here, dating back some 4000 years, set out in a horseshoe pattern overlooking the loch. There’s a ruined cairn close by, and the remains of cremated bodies were found beneath the peat. An information board asks whether this whole site was an ancient cemetery – or whether the stones represented human remains being offered to the gods.

After a long, gentle climb the road dipped down to Rumster Forest, conifers towering over me on either side, and I took a right turn onto the Achow road. This brought me to the A99 south of Swiney, so then it was just a matter of heading back down the coast through Latheron and Latheronwheel and having to put up with lorries thundering past.

Just north of Dunbeath I got off the bike again for a short coastal walk to a stack which is home to a sizeable puffin colony at this time of year (checking first at the nearby farmhouse, as it involves walking over agricultural land). The sky was brightening now and it was good to be on the cliff-tops. I counted half a dozen puffins (last time I was there, in the late evening, there were about 60). They’re quite a distance away – you’d need a super-duper telephoto lens to get a worthwhile picture. But I was happy to gaze for a while through my binoculars, as restless fulmars swooped back and fore in front of me.

I freewheeled most of the way back down to Dunbeath, where Gunn’s river was now sparkling in the sunshine.

Route details

Dunbeath, Loch Rangag and Achavanich

Start/finish: Dunbeath mill car park

Route: A9 (briefly) then minor roads to Houstry, Smerral and Den Moss before joining the A9 Causewaymire; minor roads to Achavanich/Rumster Forest and Achow, returning to Dunbeath on A99 and A9

Distance: 25 miles (40km)

Map: OS Landranger 11 Thurso and Dunbeath

Exploring some of the lesser-known byways of south-east Caithness, taking in some of the county’s ancient sites

RankTribe™ Black Business Directory News – Arts & Entertainment