Santa Monica schools have very high standards, but apparently not for every student

By Marvin M. Lawton II
It wasn’t the disproportionately lower achievement levels of black and Latino students or the school board’s proposed interventions that drew me in to The Argonaut’s July 23 cover story.

What caught my attention was the uncomfortable nostalgia I felt at seeing a mirror image of myself in the young lad Justin.

I too was disenchanted with school at even five years old. During kindergarten at a mildly integrated private school, I sat under the tutelage of an Anglo teacher who recommended to my mother that I should be tested for mental retardation. In her opinion I was hyperactive, could not color within the lines and appeared to be bored in class.

Once my mother transferred me to a local public school, I ended up skipping the entire second grade and grew up to become a school administrator in the Santa Monica – Malibu Unified School District.

During my short tenure at SMMUSD I saw people who believe in providing a quality education for all. Despite the achievement gap within the district, it was amazing to see minority students in Santa Monica still outperformed their peers in neighboring districts by almost 150 API points. But I also saw some possible reasons for the divide.

I can recall mediating two types of parent conferences.

The first would be with an Anglo parent who had major concerns after receiving notification from a teacher that their child was earning a C as of the first grading period.

The second would be with a Latino or black parent who had major concerns because their child was receiving an F at the end of the semester, often complaining they hadn’t received any prior notification.

One might say the difference was that the teacher was more concerned about the non-minority student’s educational wellbeing than that of the student of color. One could also say that the student of color didn’t put in the work for the entire semester and the parent didn’t have much of an interest in their child’s education, given that they waited until the last minute to address the issue. In either case, everyone involved could have done something different to improve the situation.

I believe it is very true that in Santa Monica “the existing rift and disparity between racial subgroups is not for lack of trying,” as the article states. They have and I’m sure will continue to develop action plans, albeit through community-based advisory committees, town hall meetings, and even soliciting very competent consultants such as Prof. Pedro Noguera.

At the same time, when you decide to go the gym to lose 50 pounds, it didn’t take three months to gain the weight so surely you can’t expect to lose it all with some 90-day Insanity Workout. Closing the achievement gap is going to take time and, most importantly, will involve developing critical accountability measures. And the true benchmark is how much culture changes in the district, not how well students perform on a standardized test.

I don’t have a plan of action for the district, but I know the next reasonable step: Raise your expectations.

Santa Monica schools already have high standards of excellence, but the levels of expectation for students are dramatically skewed. These suppositions supersede the institutional racism that exists beyond the local district, as discussed by board member Oscar de la Torre, and for this all stakeholders must be held accountable.

Minority parents must get more involved in their children’s educations.

Teachers and counselors must develop and enforce preventive, not anecdotal, responses to intervention (RTIs).

Administrators must internalize the notion that school safety encompasses providing emotional and intellectual, not just physical, security. A “bully-free” zone is irrelevant to students who don’t feel they are perceived as equally competent as their non-minority peers.

Last but not least, the Santa Monica community must do all it can to ensure the city’s diversity is not measured in higher concentrations of multi-ethnic groups or in electing a few minorities to positions of power, but in building an academic climate where every student can be academically
and intellectually uninhibited without having to cover up who they are.

Marvin M. Lawton II is a former co-chair of SMMUSD’s Intercultural Equity and Excellence District Advisory Committee.