Three steps forward, why step back?

By From page A15 | October 30, 2011

Three steps forward and…

Is it inevitable that the next phrase of this sentence be: “two steps back?” I say emphatically, no, especially when it comes to Davis schools and inequality in schooling outcomes.

I present four illustrations of how far we have come in the past decade addressing together how differently our “high-performing” schools are serving and are experienced by Davis children, in part dependent on race, ethnicity and economic class. There is encouraging news here.

Opportunities to continue on our largely positive trajectory emerge from this brief and incomplete slice of what we have done as educators, public officials, parents, community members and, of course, youth, the latter often in the vanguard of change.

Before beginning, let me state that the Native American category is included so as not to lose track of the existence of this population. Students are almost certainly misclassified, which is one reason why this group’s data vary so much from year to year.

Graph No. 1 depicts an impressive decrease in the number of students suspended each year in each racial/ethnic category. The comparison starts from when student-committed hate crimes publicly and embarrassingly confirmed suspicions that many Davis students were experiencing a dysfunctional school climate (2002-03). Check out the Davis documentary, “From The Community To The Classroom,” on YouTube.

Since we began our painful community and school change, the percentage of Asian and white students suspended has been cut in half, and the percentage of Latino students suspended has decreased by threefold. Davis educators are to be congratulated for finding alternative ways to respond to and redirect students.

These data should more stridently drive us to look for reasons and remedies as to why the percentage of black students suspended has decreased by only 25 percent over this time span. African-American students were suspended three times more often than white students in the 2009-10 school year.

Over the decade, many, including students and I, have collected and reported these data publicly. I have been disappointed by how many months it takes district officials to compile a report in response to my request for public information, only because I would think these data would be at someone’s fingertips, being monitored and reported back to administrators several times a year.

I fear the annual mandatory reporting to the federal government is the only time these data are seen. Suspension rates and disparities are even higher at our junior high schools.

Graph No. 2 demonstrates that proportionately fewer African-American and Latino students make up the student population of King High School, our district’s “continuation” high school.

In the five years before “community change” (1998-2002), the percentages of African-American and Latino students at King High were 2.5 and 3.3 times as high as the percentages these groups made up at Davis High School, our top-ranked, flagship, conventional high school.

In the past five years, the percentage of African-American students at King High was less than the percentage of African-American students at Davis High. Educators are again to be congratulated for their innovations, including a new support class for 10th-grade English students and the founding of the Academic Center.

Moving forward, we need to understand and remedy why Latino students remain so disproportionately represented at King High.

Graph No. 3 offers data from before and after the district required both a third-grade parent and the private evaluator to sign a form stating that their student had been tested only once in a 12-month period. Students from groups (African-American, Latino, low-income or low parent education) who score close to the cut-off point to qualify as GATE-identified are retested by district staff using an alternate test known to be less culturally biased than the test administered during the universal testing of third-graders.

It is still unclear to me why we allow private testing for GATE qualification, especially when there are such marked racial and income disparities in those who qualify by this method.

The final graph shows that there has been little change in the racial/ethnic disparity of Davis High School graduates who qualified to apply to the California State University or University of California. If our schools are as excellent as we say, we should be able to move kindergartners forward together as a cohort, emerging in 12th grade with roughly the same possibility of taking advantage of our public universities.

Could we make the A-G pre-requisite the default graduation requirement for our high schools? Students could “opt-out” with parent permission, but would not be tracked out without scrutiny.

San Jose Unified School District adopted this “A-G for All” policy in 1997 with impressive results, according to the March 2007 issue of “Colorlines”: The percentage of African-American and Latino students completing A-G requirements doubled, while the percentage of black students dropping out was cut in half.

Making this bold statement about what future choices should be available to every student and what our district expects to develop in every student would indeed be a step in a positive, more equal direction.

— Jann Murray-García, M.D., M.P.H., is a Davis parent and pediatrician. She shares this monthly column with Jonathan London. Reach her at [email protected]

Jann L. Murray-Garcia

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