(Excerpts from a letter to the SMFCSD Board of Trustees, dated 9.13.18)
by Chelsea Bonini
What is Equity?
Equity exists when all students are provided with the opportunity to achieve at their highest potential, no matter which District school they attend or their personal attributes, as evidenced by a measurable data showing parity in learning and outcomes, across school sites and demographic groups.
Historical Segregation of Housing & Schools
History chronicles nationwide racial and social class segregation that persisted because of prejudices, racial policies of government agencies such as the Federal Housing Administration, the real estate industry, biased home loans, widespread exclusionary zoning ordinances and laws and court decisions, as early as the 1896 Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality – a doctrine that came to be known as "separate but equal.”1
Racial and social class segregation in housing developments, and therefore in schools, was entrenched well before 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public education was unconstitutional, when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited legal segregation, and when the Civil Rights Act of 1968 defined housing discrimination as the “refusal to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of his race, color, religion, or national origin.”
Demographic Inequities in Education
We know that certain demographic groups (ethnic minorities, girls, the poor and kids with disabilities) have historically been denied equitable opportunities and parity in learning and education, and have been subject to inequitable opportunities to reach their full potential.
Unfortunately, just as in other social justice and equity-related contexts, even with new laws, policies and shifts in cultural responses, the impacts of past discrimination can persist. It may be that it is entrenched in systems, it may be a result of bias or a rationalized fear of the unknown, or we may simply fail to recognize the continuing impact, despite clear proclamations of protections, inclusion and opportunity for all.
Addressing Equity and Integration in San Mateo Schools
The discussion of equity and integration in our District began many years ago, at least as early as 1967, but likely even earlier. Your predecessor Trustees have, in many instances, fought to implement protections and opportunities, and just as you are raising this issue again today, we owe them a debt of gratitude for their courageous advocacy.
In 1967, Sue Lempert was a Board Trustee in the San Mateo Elementary School District. I have spoken with her and have heard her account of her Board’s decision to “integrate the schools.” At that time, the focus was on bringing minority students from North Central San Mateo to other schools in San Mateo by bus in an effort to racially integrate students. To my knowledge, bussing was initiated in 1967.
Development of Equity-based Policies for San Mateo Schools
On September 17, 1968, the San Mateo Elementary School Board of Trustees approved Board Policy 5020 (attached)2, entitled Integrated Pupil Learning Experience, to acknowledge the existing racial and social segregation and the degree to which it was affecting “the educational opportunities for maximum development of individual potential.” It was also noted in the subtext of the Policy that “the problem [was] one of long standing [, and that] [a]ll efforts on the part of the Board and its administrative officers must be done as promptly and judiciously as [was] consistent with educational soundness and financial feasibility.”
Board Policy 5020 was either immediately preceded or followed by the District’s “Voluntary Desegregation Plan” (actual date of Approval unknown, but a copy that I was given is attached, with annotations) and Board Policy 0110 (attached), entitled Cultural Pluralism (approved on February 4, 1975), which focuses on the appreciation of diversity, as well as the Board’s policies regarding Intra-District Transfers and Inter-District Transfer Requests.
Each of the aforementioned Policies was referenced in the Board Resolution No. 20/09-10(approved on April 15, 2010), (attached), which relied upon these Policies for implementation and approval of a revised Magnet Schools Plan, and was prepared in anticipation of potential magnet school funding from the Federal Government, which did not materialize at that time.
Further, each of these policies was part of the then-current Board’s direction concerning perceived inequity in our District and movement toward remedying it, and each one (no doubt) was hard fought and required a high degree of courage by the Board Members to make the decision to proceed at that time.
A 21st Century Vision for Equity
In 2011, when Dr. Cyndy Simms was hired as the new Superintendent of the SMFCSD, I was just starting a 4-year tenure on the PTA Board, and equity became part of our general District discussions.
Dr. Simms visited each PTA and shared her personal story and hopes for the District in her introductory meetings that Fall, and she referenced and prominently posted Dr. Richard Kahlenberg’s3 Article entitled, “From All Walks of Life: New Hope for School Integration” on her Superintendent’s webpage, which remained there for the duration of her tenure with the District.
Soon thereafter, Dr. Simms initiated the Philanthropy Committee and they pursued a discussion of equity and attempted to arrive at some solutions to address the inequity components identified among all of our schools.
The Philanthropy Committee did not reach consensus on any new or modified policy and nothing concrete was recommended to the Board of Trustees, but they did provide annual reports to the Board through 2015 (a sample report is attached from May 2015, entitled “Annual Report on the Strategic Plan and Equity Reassessment”), which focused on components of inequity at our schools including: (1) fundraising capacity; (2) PTA funded classroom aides, (3) access to music, (4) volunteer hours, (5) access to technology, (6) physical education and wellness programming, and (7) access to art. Not surprisingly, the lack of these factors was highly correlated with high percentages of socioeconomically disadvantaged students at our schools, just as we have seen the trend to be for low academic performance & high SED%.
The Philanthropy Committee met from 2012-2015 and defined “Equity” as follows: “The San Mateo-Foster City School District sets and meets baseline expectations for all students and provides equal access to maximum opportunities for each student to reach his/her potential with the support and engagement of our community.”
A Focus on Socio-Economic Balance
In the summer of 2013, the then-current Board studied and adopted new Board Policy 0411(attached), entitled Magnet Schools (Approved on September 5, 2013). The Policy set forth the purposes and evaluative criteria for continued funding of the District’s Magnet Schools. One Purpose of the Policy was to “reduce socio-economic imbalance within the District,” with a paired Evaluative Criteria of having a “socio-economic profile [that] is similar to that of the San Mateo-Foster City School District [on average].” (See attached)4
As I anticipated coming onto the Board in 2013, and then did so in December, equity was being discussed in 2 ways in regard to the Measure P Facilities Bond – (a) equity was raised in regard to benefits to SM vs. FC under the proposed measure and (b) equity was addressed in terms of Foster City having notably better schools than San Mateo, as measured by STAR test scores and API indexing year over year (thus, a perceived inequity in opportunity and outcomes for students based upon school attended). As you know, Measure P did not pass.
Discussions of Equity During and After Measure P
The Post-Measure P “Next Steps Committee” was launched in 2014, and equity was added to the scope of their review. They were to include consideration of equity in the context of Measure P and how it might impact a future bond measure addressing capacity in our District.
The Next Steps Committee and also the then-current Board of Trustees were presented with historical information, policies, and the impacts of “School Choice and School Desegregation” by San Mateo County Counsel, Tim Fox on May 15, 2014 (Attached for your reference) since the District’s current socioeconomic imbalance came up in the context of the Next Steps Committee’s discussions of use of existing facilities for programs, possible shifting of magnet schools, and the fact that a perception of not having any “choice” varied for families, depending upon their socioeconomic level.
It was also determined that until a new school could be built in Foster City, there was no opportunity to engage in socioeconomic balancing between San Mateo and Foster City, as Foster City’s schools were all at capacity, so that was to be a discussion for another day.
Two Magnet Schools Drop in Percentage of SED Students
Equity and a desire for increased socioeconomic balance also arose during discussions of theMontessori Task Force, which was assembled in 2014 to address the growth and sustainability of the Montessori Program, following the Board’s decision to transition Parkside to a single-theme of STEAM in 2014.5
Equity and socioeconomic balance arose as issues in these discussions because both College Park and North Shoreview had seen significant drops in their percentages of socioeconomically disadvantaged students in recent years, and leaders at these schools were expressing a desire for and appreciation of having a more diverse group of students from different backgrounds in attendance on their campuses.
In 2016-17, College Park’s percentage of socioeconomically disadvantaged students dropped to the lowest of all San Mateo campuses, at 7%, following a steady decline from 17% in 2013-14. It is notable that in 2016-17, College Park was also the highest academically performing elementary school in San Mateo. See the attached charts evidencing our schools’ inverse correlation of high academic achievement to low percentages of socioeconomic disadvantage, and the reverse.
Rising SED at Park School
As a historical note, when College Park completed its transition to being a true magnet program, without a neighborhood, in 2009, this had a detrimental impact on the socioeconomic balance at San Mateo Park. The children from the North Central San Mateo neighborhood, many of whom were English language learners, were re-assigned to attend San Mateo Park, unless they sought a transfer to go to their (former) neighborhood school at College Park.
Over the last 9 years, San Mateo Park struggled with the influx of socioeconomically disadvantaged students with higher academic need. The number of neighborhood families attending San Mateo Park from its direct neighborhood (West of El Camino) dwindled to 2 and then 1, and maybe even now zero families.
Equity Study Session
In the Spring of 2015, following Dr. Simm’s announcement of retirement, and with Dr. Joan Rosas’ pending arrival, Karen McCormick, a parent from San Mateo Park School requested an equity/achievement Agenda Item. She and Alexandra Gillen had been fixtures at our Board Meetings from 2013-2015. They presented data at each meeting about the many students at San Mateo Park that were not achieving at grade level and the equity issues that were disproportionately impacting their school – certainly since the College Park transition in 2009.6
They were begging the Board to address the equity issue, to give direction to meet the academic needs of students who needed more support - to provide parity in learning opportunities for all students.
Dr. Simms was departing shortly, so she placed this item on the June 8, 2015 Agenda as “Socio Economically Disadvantaged Needs” (attached). The Agenda item referenced the Magnet School Policy and called for the setting of a Study Session in the near future (if the Board desired to do so) “to review, discuss, define, and enact policies that result in children from low income families . . . achieving parity in learning with children of mid and high income families [measured by standard testing, including Smarter Balanced Assessments and Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA)].” The Agenda item made specific reference to the “balance/imbalance of socio-economically disadvantaged students throughout the District’s schools [being] part of the [ongoing] work” of the District.
Upon Dr. Rosas arrival, Board members renewed the request for a consensus of the Board to agree to a hold a Study Session on the equity and academic achievement disparity issue, as requested by Karen McCormick and outlined by Dr. Simms in the June 8, 2015 agenda item. The Board agreed to hold the Study Session.
I provided an outline of issues for the Study Session (see attached) to Dr. Rosas, and worked with her to set expectations for the information that would be useful for the Board to have in order to engage in a fruitful discussion.
The Study Session was held on April 14, 2016. The Board was presented with a series of “Pie Charts” showing, school-by-school “% Standard Met and Above” in ELA and Math on the 2015 CAASPP (Attached). We were paired with District Staff to discuss in the public setting in a “turn and talk” format. The numbers were dismal for schools that we knew had higher levels of socio- economically disadvantaged students.
Possibly a result of the limited information presented, there was very little discussion by the Board, and in the end, only minor direction to staff, including a request for presentation of more data as it may become available and a request for further conversation about the magnet schools and whether they are meeting the stated purposes and evaluative criteria.
So, unfortunately, the long-awaited Equity Study Session resulted in no real direction or movement toward equity, socio-economic balance or parity in achievement levels.
The concept of “Controlled Choice,” including potentially capping percentages of socioeconomically disadvantaged student permitted to enroll at school sites to alleviate segregation, was raised in a later discussion, but based upon recent demographic reports indicating trending gentrification in San Mateo and the anticipated new school site in Foster City, the Board did not have consensus to carry the discussion forward at that time.
Addressing Equity in our Middle School Math Pathways
In May of 2016 our Board had a follow-up conversation in regard to potential inequities in math course placement and acceleration in the Math Pathways, which had been approved by the Board in the prior school year. Many students in our middle schools were citing lack of challenging material, perceived inappropriate placements, denial of placement into compacted and advanced courses, with no opportunity to de-track once set on a “path.” And even more troubling was that the course enrollment data revealed a lack of a diverse array of students, including virtually no ELL and SED students enrolled in the compacted or advanced courses, exposing likely inequitable placement practices, opportunities and outcomes.
The Board gave direction to develop a policy for broader testing in 5th grade (in an attempt to capture more students in demographics that were under-represented in the compacted/ advanced classes), for appeals to be permitted to review potential mis-placements, for teacher and student input and grades to be used as factors for placement (rather than the strict test- based numerical qualification). Much of this was implemented by the summer of 2016 and in the following year, resulting in the offering of compacted and advanced math courses to a broader array of students in the 2016-17 school year. This is something the current Board would be well-advised to keep in their sight in regard to continuing and new equitable opportunities.
1 I highly recommend Richard Rothstein’s book The Color of Law (2017) to each of you, as it has many facts about de jure segregation in our region, which I feel every public official in the Bay Area should know about, if they do not already.
2 Note that when the District’s Policies were reviewed and then approved in their entirety on June 5, 2014, this Policy was not included. I followed up on this when I realized this in 2016, but to my knowledge it has not yet been addressed.
3 I highly recommend Dr. Richard Kahlenberg’s book The Future of School Integration – Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy (2012) to each of you.
4 Magnet School Study Sessions were held to review the Magnet Schools’ consistency with the Purposes and Evaluative Criteria set forth in BP 0411 in the Spring of 2014 and 2015.
5 On January 8, 2015, the Board approved the Montessori One plan to have North Shoreview and Parkside house two campuses of Montessori under “one” program, with the transition of the K-5 STEAM program to a portion of the Bayside STEM Academy campus.
6 See attached Board Statement and Charts presented at multiple meetings during 2013-2015 by Karen McCormick and Alexandra Gillen.