Parents and Educators Want to Know Why

By Bonnie Eslinger
Santa Monica resident Laejohnie Bennett raised her son to be proud of his African-American heritage, so her heart sank one day when he came home from school and said angrily that he “hated being black.”

At the time he was five years old.

“I couldn’t believe he’d even say anything like that,” Bennett said. “I think he was just observing that he wasn’t being treated fairly.”

Now nine years old, her son still struggles with school, although he does well academically, said Bennett, a single mother who also has an 11-month-old daughter.  When her son gets bored he starts to act up, she said, and his teachers just don’t seem to know how to handle him.

“They don’t understand us. I had to explain, with African-American students, you have to be firm, that’s our culture,” Bennett said.

Instead, school officials have tried to convince Bennett that her son has some sort of disability and needs special education. They’ve suggested setting him up with an individualized education plan, or IEP — the mechanism that establishes the education provided to kids with special needs, everything from a physical disability to those suffering from “emotional disturbance.”

Bennet’s not buying it. She knows a disproportionate percentage of kids of color are in special education classes within the Santa Monica – Malibu Unified School District.

That fact is not a secret. It’s been widely discussed among administrators, teachers, parents and community members — along with African-American and Latino students’ lagging grade point averages, higher discipline and suspension rates, and lover levels of college readiness.

Within SMMUSD, about 51% of students are white, 30% are Latino, 6.4% are African-American and 5.8% are of Asian heritage, according to state data. But 19% of African-American students are in special education, according to district data, followed by 17% of Hispanic students and just 13% of students overall.

Results from the last round of state standardized testing show that in SMMUSD white students reached a collective Academic Performance Index (API) score of 907 and Asians a 941, based on a scale of 200 to 1,000 with 800 considered the benchmark for proficiency. Latino and African-American students’ lower scores placed the subgroups at 787 and 738, respectively. The scores for the minority students are higher, however, than their peers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where the collective API score for Latinos was at 729 and African Americans at 697.

No Lack of Trying

The difference between the lower test scores more often seen with minority students and the higher scores of their white and Asian peers, known as the “achievement gap,” is widely recognized as a national problem with no single solution.

But in Santa Monica’s public schools, some would say the existing rift and disparity between racial subgroups is not for lack of trying. For years, the progressive community has tried one approach after another to bridge inequities and bring African-American and Latino students up to the academic levels of the district’s advantaged majority.

The district’s latest course of action is the planned hiring of consultant Pedro Noguera, a nationally-revered academic and author who has focused his career on the issues of race and equity in public schools. Currently wrapping up a 12-year tenure at New York University, Noguera is coming west to join UCLA this fall as a distinguished professor in the university’s department of education. He’s also agreed to work with the SMMUSD on the relatively undefined task of tackling the student achievement gap, as the parameters of his work are still being negotiated.

Currently being finalized, Noguera’s contract is expected to be on the school board’s Aug. 12 agenda, with the final agreement slated for the board’s Sept. 2 meeting, according to school district spokeswoman Gail Pinsker.

In preparation for the work ahead, the school board held a study session in May that looked at the current state of affairs for the district’s African-American and Latino students.

SMMUSD Superintendent Sandra Lyon said Noguera will review the district’s current efforts and help develop a multi-year plan to tackle the problem. The result should be a system that doesn’t allow students to fall through the cracks or depend on the dedicated efforts of individual school staffers.

“It has to be when a student hits this benchmark, what do we do? What’s the system response for that student? That’s really our goal with Dr. Noguera,” Lyon said. “And how do we measure it, how do we monitor it, and how do we change it if we’re getting the same result over and over again? And I think that’s been the frustration of the board. We’ve tried a number of things. … What’s the best use of our resources?”

Not Just a Black Issue

That frustration is shared by community members, evidenced by public comment at the May 21 meeting. For about 90 minutes, story after story was shared about children and parents feeling marginalized and discriminated against in the district — and their discouragement when promises of improvement went unfulfilled.

Maria Del Luna said her son’s self-esteem dropped when he first started at his Santa Monica elementary school because of the “intimidating” way staff treated him and other Latino children.

“As with the other parents, I can take racism for myself, but when it comes to my child … ” Del Luna said, her voice breaking off mid-sentence as tears flowed down her face. “I had to go back and show him his preschool work and tell him he was able to do it before he got there. Because of kindergarten he would say he couldn’t do it.”

Del Luna accepted the district’s offer to put her son into special education and she says it has “helped tremendously.” But she feels the district could do more to get Latino parents involved in their children’s education.

The district’s inability to help struggling kids of color is shameful, said parent Gina Frazier.

“Are you embarrassed that the achievement gap of Latino and black students is still low after years and years?” Frazier said. “I was thinking it was just blacks’ issues, but when I heard about Latino families my heart just broke.

Frazier has been coming to school board meetings for years, along with members of the Committee for Racial Justice, a citizens group formed after a 2011 incident at Santa Monica High School in which an African-American wrestling student reportedly saw a noose around a brown wrestling dummy and was later chained to a locker by teammates and subjected to racial remarks.

The district responded to the event by calling for renewed focus on eliminating racial inequity in the schools and reviving a community group called the “Intercultural Equity and Excellence District Advisory Committee” to bring insight and ideas to the school board about how to tackle the problem.

One recommendation of the committee briefly embraced by the district was a program brought to Santa Monica High School called Village Nation, which presented assemblies for African-American students and trained adults to be “elder” mentors. The controversial program — some African-American parents didn’t like having their kids separated out of classes in order to participate — has since been dropped, but some parents at the May school board meeting called for it to be brought back.

The district isn’t doing enough to address racism in its schools, said alumni Robbie Jones.

“Now we’re promised Pedro Noguera,” Jones said. “I’ve heard of him. He’s a wonderful person. But he is not a fix-all, so please don’t look at him as our savior.”

‘Institutionalized Racism’

When it came time for the school board to jump into the conversation, none disputed the extent of the district’s problem serving the needs of African-American and Latino students, but most expressed a desire not to rehash past problems.

The school board takes the concerns of the community seriously, and said board President Laurie Lieberman.

“That’s what this study session was supposed to be about. It wasn’t so much to be a statement that we have it all under control and everything’s perfect here. Otherwise we wouldn’t need this study session. I think we all know that,” Lieberman said. “We have to think of a way to move forward and create solutions.”

Board Vice President Jose Escarce said the district needs someone with Noguera’s qualifications.

“We own the problem and we own the solution, but he has experience that nobody here has and knowledge that nobody here has. Our goal is to draw on his expertise in a way that’s helpful to us to accomplish what we’ve been trying to accomplish for a long time,” Escarce said.

Board member Oscar de la Torre called Noguera’s hiring “a renewed approach” to an old problem that is not limited to the school district.

“One of the things that must be stated is this whole issue of institutionalized racism,” de la Torre said.

The district is not alone in this particular struggle, Noguera said in a phone interview.

“This district fits a certain profile, a liberal affluent district that struggles with education of students of color. I spent a lot of time with Berkeley (Unified School District) dealing with similar issues there, and Berkeley hasn’t made a lot of progress there either,” Noguera said.

Noguera received his bachelors’ degree in sociology and history and a teaching credential from Brown University in 1981, his masters’ degree in sociology from Brown in 1982 and his doctorate in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley in 1989. He has taught at UC Berkeley and Harvard in addition to NYU and was once a public school teacher. He also served on the Berkeley Unified School District board in the 1990s. He is the author of numerous books, including “City Schools and the American Dream,” “Unfinished Business: Closing the Achievement Gap in Our Nation’s Schools,” and “Schooling for Resilience: Improving the Life Trajectories of African-American and Latino Boys.”

‘Unintended Bias’

Noguera wouldn’t outline any specific strategies he thought would help Santa Monica close its achievement gap, noting that he was currently talking to stakeholders about “what went wrong with past efforts.”

“In a lot of these situations districts spend way too much time pointing fingers at parents, kids, teachers, administrators,” Noguera said. “You want a situation where everyone takes responsibility for what they do.”

Sarah Braff, the president of the district’s teachers union, is cautiously optimistic about what Noguera could bring to the district. More should be done to help students of color during their early school years, she said.

“I don’t think anybody has the answer, but we have to keep trying,” Braff said. “We need to figure out what makes people feel more welcomed and more included in their local schools.”

Braff uses the phrase “unintended bias” instead of “racism,” and pauses when asked if some district teachers discriminate against minority students.

“I’m not going to say teachers. I think some people have a stronger unintended bias than others, and don’t always recognize it,” Braff said. “I don’t think we have had the hard discussions we need to have.”