Reflecting on educational inequities in Bay Area high schools

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As a high school student, I rely on the public education system to make me a more prepared and informed citizen. But what happens when our schools are failing the very students they have sworn to better?

Even throughout the incredibly diverse Bay Area, high school students often face a plethora of educational inequities. Every high school and district deals with different systemic problems due to their unique demographics and culture. In my experiences, and in the experiences of students from five different school districts I spoke with, racism, inequitable access and sexual harassment and assault were the three issues at the forefront of students’ minds.

Especially during the pandemic as schools make the transition to distance learning, issues of educational equity have been key considerations for many educators and administrators. Regardless of what measures were taken, however, I’ve seen my less fortunate peers struggle to keep up with lackluster online education.

These students have to worry not only about schoolwork on top of a pandemic, but also about where their next meal is coming from, now that schools aren’t open to provide free or reduced breakfasts and lunches.

Racism and diversity

Students of color face frequent discrimination and are empirically much likelier to be subject to disciplinary action. This trend is seen nationwide, with minorities in classrooms often experiencing harmful microaggressions or blatant discrimination based on race.

At San Francisco Union School District (SFUSD), Black students are 10 times as likely to be suspended as white students, according to ProPublica. SFUSD also has a high segregation index between white, Black and Hispanic students — these racial groups are unevenly distributed across the district.

Banning inter-district transfers — as Acalanes Union High School District did — hurts diversity.

“Inter-district transfers — which is where … the district gets most of their diversity — impacts the African American community especially because it’s decreased our population by 25%,” Ava Moran, a board member of the Committee for Multicultural Education Reform at Miramonte High School, said in an interview with The Daily. “And so by reversing the ban and reinstating transfers we’re reinstating the diversity in our school.”

In communities and school districts where demographics are already largely homogeneous, cutting off the lifeline of meaningful diversification is disastrous. As a student attending a top public school in the Bay with a 90% Asian population, I feel what little benefit our diversity offers is already mitigated by tokenism and harmful microaggressions.

The lack of diversity in my immediate community has severely narrowed my perspectives in understanding the implications of history and literature on current events. My district, Fremont Unified School District, has only one core novel from grades 7-12 written by an author of color. Euro-centric learning environments invalidate experiences of students of color and encourage illiberalism and narrow-minded perspectives. 

Furthermore, I’ve seen countless microaggressions by a majority-white staff who perpetuate model minority stereotypes about Asians by encouraging unnecessarily toxic or competitive learning environments “because we’re Asian.”

Teachers have sometimes subtly expressed in classrooms that it’s our Asian parents and upbringing that cause our stress — forcing us to take on too many weighted classes. While the number of weighted classes a student takes may affect stress levels, teachers wrongly pin the blame on the stereotypes of Asian parents being strict and on students for being consumed by academics.  

Despite repeated calls for reform, student and community activists feel frustrated that their voices aren’t adequately addressed. 

“Dismissal of the stories and experiences of people of color … that’s one of the big issues in this district, because I have not been the first one to complain, and my peers have not been the first ones to complain, and they have consistently and continuously just dismissed our stories,” Moran said. 

I’ve experienced the same frustration working with other student leaders who have expressed similar concerns with administrators and authority figures often half-heartedly committing to performative actions that rarely lead to substantial change.

Accessibility

It didn’t take a pandemic to expose the systemic socioeconomic and racial inequities present in the status quo. Race, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation often affect and dictate a student’s success and access to additional resources.

Although I am lucky enough to live in a high-income attendance area, one of the subsequent problems is the aforementioned lack of diversity. When Black and Hispanic students make up a little more than 2% of the student population and Asian students make up a vast majority, the interests of underrepresented minorities are often neglected.

Teachers start catering toward the high-performing students, and lower-income students of color often receive a lower standard of education. 

I’ve often felt slighted in classes where other students are clearly favored or more proficient. This phenomenon is exacerbated by race, leading to a stark achievement gap.

For instance, at Berkeley Unified School District, Black students are academically 4.7 grade levels behind white students, and Hispanic students are 3.6 grade levels behind their White peers.

In high-achieving and predominantly white school districts, this education gap is a common reality, with students of color and other minorities being less likely to be placed into gifted honors programs and take Advanced Placement (AP) courses. At SFUSD, Black and Hispanic students make up only 15% of the students in Gifted & Talented pathways, and only 11% of the students taking AP courses.

Even outside of the classroom, higher-income students are able to participate in more extracurricular activities with higher barriers to entry while being able to access resources that give them an edge in college admissions.

Take the SAT — while I and many of my more fortunate peers were able to afford test prep centers that cost thousands of dollars, many others can’t afford the same luxuries.

These seemingly trivial but revealing disparities made me realize how inequitable and flawed many of our current metrics for success are. I couldn’t have gotten the scores I did without the simulated testing environments, practice tests and experienced instructors to whom I had access.

Sexual harassment and assault

In San Francisco Union School District’s Lowell High School, problems of sexual assault and harassment have resurfaced.

“Recently, most of the issues of sexual assault and harassment have been focused towards Lowell,” Shavonne Hines-Foster, a rising senior at Lowell High School and an SFUSD student delegate said. “On Twitter, alumni started to speak up about their horrible experiences at Lowell, and it basically triggered other survivors and other students who felt the same way to speak up about their experiences.”

Students across the Bay have been following suit. At Berkeley High School and the Berkeley Unified School District, hundreds of anonymous reports of sexual harassment and assault poured in through Instagram accounts like bhsprotectors.

Reading the horrifying reports and allegations at schools across the Bay was eye-opening and made me aware of the magnitude of sexual harassment and assault that was being swept under the rug.

In my community, education about available resources and platforms for awareness have helped survivors heal and feel comfortable with letting their voices be heard.

“We just want to promote the idea of feminism, and also have other girls share their stories, because oftentimes they don’t have a platform to share their experiences,” former president of the Women Empowerment Club Kelly at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology Kelly Ma said.

For instance, many schools have Equity and Title IX offices that are specialized in responding to harassment allegations.

Unfortunately, “there’s a lot of lack of education about Title IX,” Ma said. “There are forms that [students] can file, and there are so many things that they can expect the district to do for their justice, but many of the students didn’t know.”

Moving forward

Although there is no silver-bullet solution to the plethora of problems plaguing the Bay Area’s secondary education, there are some things to keep in mind going forward.

I’ve often felt overwhelmed by the prevalence and consequences of what are often highly institutionalized problems. Even so, I find solace in the fact that I’m not the only one looking to address these problems, and I greatly admire the student and community activists throughout the Bay who are working tirelessly. Many of these educational inequities have no place anywhere in society, and wrongly alienate deserving students with so much potential.

Contact Ian Park at ianpark3918 ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Ian Park is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's 2020 Summer Workshop. He was also a high school intern for The Daily in summer 2019.