West Marin’s achievement gap


As a student at Tomales High School the previous four years, Daniel Lopez wanted to play soccer. He competed on the varsity team as a freshman and sophomore, but his final two seasons he was academically ineligible to play. So were many other Latino students. Lopez said he and his friends, kicked out of the gym, had a hard time even finding a place for lunch-hour pick-up games.  

“They would play [American football] in the gym. No soccer. So we just played in the parking lot, behind the cafeteria, wherever we could,” Lopez said. 

Now 19, Lopez, a native of Tecate, Mexico who wears a Virgin Mary pendant around his neck and large black studs in his ears, works full time at Perry’s Deli in Inverness Park. He never graduated from Tomales High, although he later received a diploma from Petaluma Adult School. For the moment, he said, college is not in the picture.

The curbed academic trajectory of students like Lopez underlines a theme common to local schools: a stark achievement gap between white students and their Latino counterparts, who also tend to be economically disadvantaged.

For Shoreline Unified School District, whose 350-odd students are split virtually in half between the two ethnic groups, 88 percent of white students were proficient in English and 80 percent were proficient in math in the California Department of Education’s 2011 Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) report. In the same report, only 47 percent of Latino or Hispanic students were proficient in English, and only 48 percent were proficient in math. Similar gaps were evident in the reports for the Bolinas-Stinson and Lagunitas districts, although both have much smaller Latino populations.  

“I could tell that we’re not that good,” Lopez said of his Latino classmates at Tomales High. “It’s boring. Nothing really grabs your attention there, so why even try?”

In a large conference room inside the high school last Wednesday, a collection of teachers, administrators, and community members looked on as the district board met for the second time with the National Equity Project, an Oakland-based nonprofit that works with school districts to address issues of equity and opportunity. Shoreline’s collaboration with the organization is sponsored by a grant from the Marin Community Foundation.

Much of the afternoon’s workshop was dedicated to a presentation and discussion of the results of the project’s Listening Campaign, a series of small-group and individual interviews with 200 district staff, students, parents, administrators and board members. Statements gathered from the interviews were presented in the form of anonymous quotes, many of which hinted at a district very much divided along ethnic lines: “The Hispanics think that the Whites have money. The Whites think that the Hispanics get everything for free. And it frustrates everyone,” one statement read; “It’s difficult to ask about the family center because you can sound like a racist. I don’t assume that it’s for Anglo families,” read another. 

The statements evoked a visceral reaction for board member Kegan Stedwell. “It’s painful to listen to. It’s painful to hear,” she said. “I have this response because I’ve lived here for 35 years—these are issues that have existed for a very long time, and while part of the social fabric, they’re not necessarily brought out into the open or brought into public discussion to be examined.”

Just as entrenched is West Marin’s achievement divide—white students have long outperformed Latino students—although the disparity is hardly something unique to local schools.

“I would say that the data patterns we see in Shoreline are comparable to other patterns we see in Marin County and nationally, particularly in regard to the challenges for Latino students and low-income students,” said Stephen Chang, a senior associate with the National Equity Project.

Indeed, the divide in AYP scores from Shoreline is larger than that of the state as a whole, but not by much: 72 and 70 percent of white students in California were proficient in English and math, respectively, compared to 45 percent and 50 percent of Hispanic or Latino students.

While a cocktail of factors is likely responsible for the district’s achievement divide, perhaps the most glaring is a striking economic dichotomy: nearly all white students in the district are not economically disadvantaged, and nearly all Latino students are. Data presented at the workshop and based on the number of students receiving reduced price lunches showed 14 white students in second to eighth grade as economically disadvantaged and 122 as not. For Latinos, the numbers were reversed: 120 students were economically disadvantaged and 32 were not. The same pattern was evident for ninth to 11th graders. 

Because of their families’ economic hardships, Latino students are also more likely to have to work while attending school, a particularly vexing situation for students who are undocumented.

“I just think a lot of people don’t realize that just because we’re in Marin and they guess it’s a wealthy area—they don’t realize how many people actually live in poverty,” said one student, Raquel Calderón*. “And how many of those are Latinos who are actually living on the farm and having to help out, having to get up at five in the morning.” 

The markedly lower education level of most Latino parents—many local first generation immigrants have little or no formal schooling—also contributes to the disparity, as does some students’ poor English levels.

“I knew like two or three people that came when I came—the same years—and their English is still not that good. They still have a hard time,” Lopez, who has been in this country almost a decade, said.   

There is also a question of how well minority students can succeed in an educational system designed and run by members of a culture that is not their own. Despite comprising roughly half the district’s population, there are no Latinos on the Shoreline board, for example, and stereotypes of the two groups are such that Latino students who do well in school are jokingly called “whitewashed” by peers. 

“Part of our approach is recognizing there are certain assumptions—there is a design for schools and schooling which has historically been oriented to a white, middle class culture,” Chang said. “There is a challenge for segments of the population—for children and families who are coming from a different experience, whether race, class or home language.” 

A lot of that experience shows up in the form of students’ background knowledge. Marisol Salgado, a 1995 graduate of Tomales High who works with parents of struggling students as a family liaison at Tomales Elementary School, said the disparity in such knowledge among local students is partly behind the performance gap.

“For instance, a kid who has never been to the zoo doesn’t really have a grip on zoo animals, and he’s not familiar with the vocabulary that would come with the zoo,” she said. “A kid who has not had the opportunity to be around a lot of books does not have the same opportunities as a kid who comes from a home where reading before bedtime is really important. That alone is a huge difference.”

While the performance gulf plaguing Shoreline is relatively standard, less common, Chang said, is the community’s apparently high level of interest in addressing the imbalance.

“Typically board workshops in most districts are extremely sparsely attended. [Shoreline’s] are some of the largest audiences we’ve had. What we’ve seen in the last two is a tremendous amount of community interest,” he said.

At Tomales Elementary, a number of initiatives are in place that aim to narrow the divide. The school has English language development programs, an extended day program that provides instruction for students outside the school day, and a system of targeted intervention that works to address particular issues either individually or in small groups.

But particularly effective, Principal Jane Realon said, has been an expanded preschool initiative—also funded by a grant from the Marin Community Foundation—that enables more kids to get pre-kindergarten schooling.

“It’s very important for all children to have preschool services,” Realon said. “We’re trying to get all of our kids, not just Latino kids, to have a quality preschool experience.” 

At Tomales High, Principal and district Superintendent Stephen Rosenthal was also quick to rattle off a number of programs aimed at closing the gap, which he said remains even as both groups’ academic performance has improved in recent years. “We have an English support class to help [students]. We’ve had a math support class for a couple years. We have an ELL (English Language Learners) class to help with that. We have after-school tutoring in the subjects of math, Spanish and English,” he said. “And we have a terrific staff—they don’t say no to kids. They’ll work with them. You’ll see teachers working with them individually at lunch.”   

Several people familiar with Tomales High, however, said the school is not doing enough to address the needs of all its students.

Student Jaime Moreno* said the school’s English Language Development classes, a fundamental bridge program for English learners, are grossly ineffective.  “You ask any kid and they all tell you: ‘It’s a joke, we learn absolutely nothing. It’s like we’re in kindergarten again,’” Moreno said.

On a break from stocking at the deli, Lopez said he was a good student both in Mexico and at West Marin School. It was in high school, particularly his final two years, he said, where he began struggling. “Junior year I started messing up, and senior year I just messed it up,” he shrugged. 

Lopez admits he was unmotivated—he didn’t study much, despite his mom’s encouragement—but he also said not everyone at school seemed genuinely concerned with helping struggling students. “They didn’t really care, I would say. They would just do their work, do whatever they had to do and that’s it,” he said. “It wasn’t like they were pushing us hard.”

Moreno said a local culture of ethnic separation—in which whites and Latinos often live side by side but mostly occupy different social spheres—has permeated school walls.

“You go to any class and it’s completely separate,” he said. “You see Latinos here and white people here.”       

“It might not be entirely their fault,” Calderón suggested. “But you’d think a teacher would try to integrate the students to try and mix it up. But they just kind of keep it.”

The district’s two parent organizations, she said, are similarly segregated. “There’s PTA (Parent Teacher Association) and there’s ELAC (English Language Advisory Committee) and parents aren’t going to go to both because they’re so busy, so you either go to PTA or you go to ELAC, and the two sides never meet,” she said. “ELAC is for Latino parents and PTA is for white parents.” 

Considering the perhaps intractable nature of many of the root causes of the  performance disparity, Realon is realistic about the district’s chances for completely closing the divide, especially in the near term. 

“It is a persistent issue nationwide,” she said. “Some people don’t call it an achievement gap; they call it an opportunity gap. I don’t know the solution to that, because a lot of it is related to socioeconomic status. Are we going to solve that issue? Is that something that’s going to be addressed in two years? I don’t think so,” she said.

Not that many local families aren’t going to try.

Salgado said the parents she works with—mostly low-income and Latino—above all want to see their children succeed, as all parents do. 

“They don’t want their kids to grow up to milk cows or become maids,” she said.

“They want their children to be working in an office. They want their children to be the doctors or teachers they dreamed to be when they were younger.”  


*This name has been changed.


The third and final National Equity Project workshop will be held as part of a community forum on March 15.