March 31, 2006

Commentary:

California Schools Failing Students of Color

By Megan Izen
ColorLines RaceWire

     Thomasina Martin has a 3.5 GPA but that won’t help the 18-year-old graduate from her Long Beach high school this year. Ultimately, she has to pass the state’s new exit exam, which goes into effect for the first time this year requiring students to pass in order to get their diplomas. Thomasina has taken the exam three times and while she has passed the English portion of the exam, she has yet to pass the math section.

“Out of my whole class, three students passed,” Thomasina said of a class designed to help students master the exam. “I don’t want to be in school after I was supposed to graduate. I want to go on and pursue things I was planning on pursuing after high school.”

Thomasina attends Cabrillo High School, where the majority of the student population is children of color. The school doesn’t offer adequate access to college preparatory courses, known as A-G requirements, nor does it have properly trained math instructors. At Thomasina’s school, nearly half of the math teachers don’t have the appropriate credentials to teach college preparatory math.

In June, an estimated 50,000 high school seniors will not graduate with their peers as the state implements the first California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) requirement. Disproportionately represented among these students are California’s children of color who comprise 68 percent of the total student body at public schools. Since the exam was first administered in 2002, white students have consistently passed the exit exam at rates between 20 to 30 percent higher than that of Latino and Black students. Cabrillo High School is among the more than half of California high schools that does not offer enough A-G courses necessary to be accepted to the University of California and California State Universities. Thomasina will have to attend adult education courses to complete these requirements before going on to a four-year institution.

Thomasina’s circumstances are not unique within California’s educational system, according to a new report produced by two research organizations, UCLA/IDEA and UC/ACCORD. California Educational Opportunity Report is the first report to look at a combination of factors that affect high school student achievement. Larger systemic issues-like racially segregated schools, under-staffing and a lack of funding-are contributing to the failure so far of more than 20% of the 2006 class in passing the exit exam.

The report’s authors say that California students have insufficient access to counselors

and teachers, a severe shortage of appropriately trained teachers, and insufficient college

preparatory courses. Schools that experience all these barriers to college access have higher failure rates and these are also schools with high numbers of students of color.

Schools with 90-100% students of color are defined as ‘intensely segregated’ schools by the report. Compared to white-majority schools, intensely segregated schools spend an average of $600 less per student, are 27 times as likely to be overcrowded, and three and a half times more likely to experience all of the main college opportunity problems.

“It’s an enormous political discussion and debate about whether the solution is to pour more resources into segregated schools or to desegregate them,” said Jeannie Oakes, president of UCLA/IDEA and UC/ACCORD. “It’s unconscionable. Right now in California we have the worst of both worlds. We have highly segregated schools and we have highly unequal resources and opportunities at those segregated schools.”

One possible solution that has had success in closing the racial disparities within education is making A-G classes requirements for graduation and guaranteeing access to those courses. In 1998, San Jose Unified School District adopted universal A-G requirements resulting in an increase in graduation rates, test scores and college enrollment. In January, Assembly-member Joe Coto (D-San Jose), introduced Assembly Bill 1896 that would guarantee A-G access to high school students across the state.

Oakes believes school districts should look to San Jose Unified as a model for successfully implementing A-G high school graduation requirements. But she emphasizes that schools should “look carefully at the kind of support systems [San Jose] put in place that seem to help explain why they’ve had such success.”

Despite these positive results, efforts to make A-G universal have been met with opposition from legislators and teachers who worry that students won’t be able to handle college preparatory work and might lead to an increase in dropout rates. Opponents have also argued that not all high school students want to attend college. The Educational Opportunity Report however found that 9 out of 10 high school freshman say they plan to go on to college.

“If we continue to fail our students, we fail ourselves and our future,” said Tammy Johnson, director of the public policy program of the Applied Research Center, a public policy institute advancing racial justice through research, advocacy and journalism. “We are working to ensure that California’s legislators will respond to the needs of California’s students of color.”

Grassroots community organizations like Los Angeles’ InnerCity Struggle are waging universal A-G campaigns. Last year, parents, students, and organizers joined forces to pass a resolution similar to the one implemented in San Jose. By 2012, all LA Unified students will be required to complete A-G courses to graduate.

“In public schools where the population of students is becoming majority students of color, I think that, in order to really prepare the young people of the state for a successful future, that implementing A-G statewide would only be beneficial to the state,” said Maria Brenes, the youth organizing director of InnerCity Struggle.

While these victories for A-G have been won in specific districts, state legislators have yet to respond to the crisis in education with widespread support for the adoption of universal A-G access. Racial justice policy advocates, community organizers, parents and students hope that the tides will turn this year as the result of the new research.

Megan Izen is writing fellow with ColorLines magazine.

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