The Education Trust West, a California educational advocacy organization, has just released A Report on District Achievement: How Low-income, African-American, and Latino Students Fare in California School Districts and it has few good things to say about the San Leandro Unified School District (SLUSD). The report looks at how the 146 largest school districts in California are serving their African American and Latino students, focusing on student performance and improvement, the achievement gap between students of different races and the college readiness of the target population. San Leandro comes at the very bottom of the list; it’s the lowest ranked district in Alameda County and the 140th worst of the 146 districts in the study. Its worst score (an F) is for the achievement gap between white and black students.
This study looked at data collected in 2010, and focuses on the improvements done since 2005. During that time period, SLUSD was ran by former Superintendent Christine Lim. Lim had made reducing the achievement gap the focus of her mandate. She seemed convinced that the low scores of “black and brown” students were due to racist teachers not understanding their students. To address the problem, she introduced diversity teaching training and lax discipline policies for students of color, which contributed to an increase of classroom disruptions and a growing antagonism between the teaching staff and the administration. In 2008, San Leandro Teachers Association took a no-confidence vote against Lim, which passed with 90% of the vote. Lim was finally fired in December 2009, for undisclosed reasons. It would seem, that her measures to reduce the achievement gap not only had the effect of embittering teachers, but of actually increasing it.
Looking at the achievement statistics between different racial/ethnic groups in San Leandro is a sobering experience. Asians do significantly better than all other groups. At San Leandro High School, for example, Asians’ API is 90 point higher than whites’ (which in turn is about 120 points higher than that of blacks’ and Latinos’). As you would expect (given stereotypes, if nothing else), Asians do significantly better than all other racial group in math, 44% of them scored “advanced” in the HS exit exam, vs. 17% whites, 7% of Latinos and 3% of blacks. But they also do better in English: 59% of Asians scored “advanced” in English in the same exam, versus 43% whites, 16% Latinos and 17% of blacks. Filipinos , meanwhile, throw a wrench into any sense we want to make with these numbers. Their API scores are only slightly lower than whites’, but they do almost as badly as Latinos in the HS exit exam. However, they were the only subgroup who had 100% graduation rate in 2010.
Now, everyone agrees that the causes of the achievement gap are many and complex, ranging from family and cultural background, early learning opportunities to institutionalized racism at public schools. I definitely don’t dismiss the latter. I came to America when I was 14 with an elementary grasp of English, and was immediately stereotyped as being uneducated and dumb. My counselor pushed me to take cooking and typing, when I wanted to take academic classes; he enrolled me in basic math, and I had to fight to get transferred to Calculus. High School, for me, was a struggle against low expectations. Fortunately by 14 I had a very good sense of self and was willing to fight for myself (and I come from a national culture that believes in fighting, something that is not universally true in Latin America), but I shouldn’t have had to. Thus I believe any training that makes teachers and counselors check themselves for negative stereotypes of students is likely to be helpful, but it’s not enough. Districts that do well, for example, are quick to identify students with problems and to give them specialized help – something that SLUSD started doing last year. But helping all black and Latino students do significantly better is, I believe, something that the school district cannot do on its own. It’s time it got the community involved.
What I propose is that the School District start with a series of meetings between parents and teachers, where both groups can honestly speak to each other about what goes on within the classroom and outside of it. For example, I would like to see a meeting for Spanish-speaking parents, conducted in Spanish, where these parents could be asked what are the challenges that they find in educating their kids, what are the obstacles that the school puts in their paths, and what they want to see from the school district – or the city as a whole. For example, we complain about parents not reading to their children but Spanish speaking parents most often don’t have access to Spanish language children’s books. While these are available at public libraries, parents don’t necessarily know how these function and how to use them. Perhaps something as simple as Spanish-speaking library parent training could have significant impacts on how much children are read to. Another challenge for Spanish speaking parents is helping their children learn to read – many of us just cannot pronounce the proper vowel sounds in English. Perhaps we could create a program of older elementary school or middle school kids helping kindergardeners sound out words and thus open up reading for them that much earlier.
The possibilities of programs that could make small but aggregate differences for student learning is enormous, but in order to identify problems and solutions we need to talk to one another. So far, the School District has not been talking to parents. Let’s hope that changes soon.