Parents turn out for equity talk

03/22/2012

An outpouring of sentiment at Shoreline Unified School District’s National Equity Project public forum last week revealed widespread community interest in tackling inequality. The forum, held at Tomales Elementary School, was part of Shoreline’s collaboration with the Oakland-based nonprofit to address equity-related issues, an initiative funded by a grant from the Marin Community Foundation.

Thursday’s forum, during which anonymous comments compiled from a series of interviews were presented and then discussed, marked the first time the public was explicitly involved in the series of ongoing meetings between the organization and the school board. 

“That was exactly what we were hoping for in terms of the number of folks who turned up, the participation in [the discussion], and the amount of [public sharing]. This is a very good beginning,” Stephen Chang, a senior associate with the organization who co-led the forum, said.

Comments came roughly equally from white and Latino audience members and touched on a variety of topics, with the majority demonstrating genuine concern about the quality of education available to all students in the district: Shoreline stretches nearly 50 miles, from Bodega Bay to Tomales Bay; its 350-odd students are virtually half white and half Latino.  

“It’s really sad. It’s really sad to me as a parent,” Lazuli Whitt, the mother of a first grader at Inverness School, said about the achievement gap between white and Latino students. “And so I see this as an opportunity for us to utilize this process to really address how can we change that, and what would be our next steps to really make sure that all children have a quality education.”

“We’re not here for the wellbeing of the parents, but rather for the wellbeing of all students,” Carmen Esquivias said in Spanish. “Regardless of race, religion or color.”

One recurring concern was a perceived lack of communication between school officials and parents, particularly at the high school.

“The two parents I spoke with shared their experience that communication between parents and administrators and the staff is very good up until eighth grade, but when they reach high school they feel like there’s not a lot of communication,” said Nicole Vigeant.

Another comment revealed the often-prickly nature surrounding the issue of ethnic inequality—and the wedge that can be driven between whites and Latinos as resentments surface owing to real or perceived disparities in wealth and government assistance.

“One of the quotes that really bothers me,” Mike Strode said of the equity project report, “is this quote in here: ‘Hispanics think that whites have money. Whites think that Hispanics get everything for free. And it frustrates everybody.’ And it does. At the end of it, we’re all broke, we’re all in this whole world together, and it frustrates everyone because some people—when the Hispanics come driving in, in a brand new Escalade or a brand new Denali, and their kids are on free lunch—that’s where it’s frustrating as a parent.”

Chang said that kind of sentiment is common in the district. “We’ve heard that a bunch of times, and it’s not true,” he said of the characterization. “On either side, it’s not true. But it is part of what we do as a society in terms of trying to oversimplify what is our experience of the tension, of the frustration, of the challenges we face in the community and the world.”

Vicki Gonzalez brought up another common refrain: the lack of Latino representation on a board charged with serving an evenly white and Latino district. “The members of the school board are local residents,” she said in Spanish. “They have their kids here. But they don’t represent all the students. In a district with a 50 percent Hispanic population, why is there no Hispanic representative on the school board?”

Board member Jill Sartori, speaking after the public comments closed, said she would encourage Latino parents and community members to come forward. “We are elected officials and most of us run uncontested, which means we are the only person running for our seat. I think that’s a bad thing—it would be a much better process if more people were involved.”

Two Tomales High School students, senior Victor Fernandez and junior Abigail Esquivias, read from a prepared statement as representatives of their classmates. 

“We interviewed some students at Tomales High School and they gave us some direct quotes and some comments that they’re very concerned about at the school. They feel as though their voices were not respected and they weren’t heard in the report, so they asked us to come report it to you guys,” the students said, alternating lines. 

“’Latinos feel as though they are treated with less respect and given less attention than Anglos, unless they are involved in, for instance, sports. Then they seem to be treated better.’

“‘Many of us feel that the leaders of the school do not have the tools to be able to reach out to the Latino community. We want teachers who care and are passionate, who hold higher standards for students and themselves. Many students have expressed that their learning in the English development program is not being maximized. We believe that in order to achieve academic equality, Latinos are in need of a strong English program that helps us close that gap more efficiently.’

“This is our school, we want to take pride in it,” the two continued. “So please let us participate and take us into account. Could you also consider the possibility of allowing two [student] representatives, one Latino and one Anglo, to be part of the school board in the near future? Believe us, we have a lot to say and we can help you to make a difference, which we are certain [is] the reason you are all sitting here today.”

The students’ statement sparked unanimous applause from the audience. At the conclusion of the forum, several board members expressed interest in organizing a meeting with students.

 

The third National Equity Project board workshop will be held on March 28 at 6 p.m. at West Marin School.