Like most school districts, San Leandro Unified is facing the challenge of closing the “achievement gap” and helping students be successful regardless of race or gender.
San Leandro's administration would like you to believe they have taken an aggressive approach, hiring consultants who have focused their work in two directions -- having "courageous conversations" among staff about perceptions about race and student achievement, and developing "culturally relevant" teaching strategies. The focus of the work has mostly been on what happens at staff development meetings and what teaching strategies teachers use in the classroom.
Most of the teachers that I know have chosen to teach in San Leandro because of the community's diversity, even after considering the unfortunate promise of lower pay. They enter San Leandro's classrooms deeply committed to guiding all of their students to success, and reversing the trends of hundreds of years of racism. Despite this commitment, there has been a great deal of grumbling lately about the district's approach to equity. Teachers complain about too many meetings at which we talk about the same things over and over again and reconsider a handful of already-presented teaching strategies. It's time to have real courageous conversations in our district about the limitations of their approach.
The district's approach is not misguided, it's just not enough. While focusing on miracles that sometimes happen in the classroom, it doesn't consider or address many of the real causes of inequitable achievement. I agree with the district’s approach as a part of the solution. Teacher perception of student ability is important. Race absolutely matters. There's too much evidence to conclude otherwise. If a student is attending a classroom where she doesn't feel valued, encouraged, or a sense of belonging, she will likely not do her best work. So the work on culturally relevant teaching strategies is important.
However, we will fail our students unless we examine the other, more significant roadblocks to student success for our kids of color.
Most of the racism that keeps kids of color from achieving is not the racism of perception, stereotype and cognitive filters. Most of the racism that inhibits achievement is the racism of resource allocation, family support, and community support for student success. The only way to confront those challenges is by making changes to the educational program. We have to meet our kids where they are, and put more of our resources in the direction of the kids with the most need.
Issues of race, class and opportunity intersect on so many levels that it is foolish for school districts to take one-dimensional, consultant-driven approaches to closing the “achievement gap.” If a kid doesn’t go home to a place where there is parent or guardian who can sit and monitor homework, that kid is at a disadvantage. When English isn’t the first language, and the kid is pushed out of an ELL program too quickly, the kid’s at a disadvantage. Students with parents who didn’t complete college or high school are at a disadvantage. Kids in families that can’t afford college don’t as easily envision their own future as a college student. Unfortunately, these characteristics tend to be more often true for our kids of color.
To meet students where they are, we need to invest our resources in a way that gives teachers opportunities to work more directly with their students and families:
• More opportunities for after-school mentoring by teachers. The one-meeting-after-another approach to staff development is actually getting in the way of teachers meeting with students. Imagine if instead of attending all of those meetings, teachers could actually spend their after-school time working with students. Add a mechanism that encourages students who are struggling to take advantage of teachers who can stay after school to work with them, and you can finally reach students who don’t have sufficient academic support at home.
• Revitalize the ELD Program. ELL students need smaller class sizes with more individualized vocabulary work and more opportunities to communicate, much more support in their primary language, strengthened bilingual education program, and significantly more parent outreach. Since Superintendent Lim has been at the helm in San Leandro, the cuts to ELD (English Language Development) Programs have been dramatic, despite the fact that the population which requires the program keeps increasing in size. This year, the program was practically gutted, though a few ELD coaches still exist when budgeted for by school site funds. What used to be a team of eight great teachers is now a team of four, serving an increasing number of students.
• Better investment in real college-bound mentoring programs, like AVID. Give the program coordinators the necessary resources to expand the program, which focuses on kids who might often become the first generation from their family to attend college.
• More aggressive community and parent outreach efforts, directly connecting parents to the classroom, and expanding the school’s role in the betterment of the community.
Each of these strategies comes with a price tag. We’ll never have real success unless we’re willing to invest. But the potential future cost in lost opportunities for our students and our community is far greater than the real expense of any of these strategies. And sharing a vision is the first step towards realizing it.