In the last week, the Vanguard asked the school board candidates to respond to a question on whether they believe there is an achievement gap and what concrete steps there are to address the achievement gap. To their credit, the six candidates who answered the question and the two candidates who provided expanded remarks understood that there was an achievement gap and provided some ideas on how to address it.
I think the answers overall were good and constructive, focusing on things like early learning for children at risk, programs for English learners, an understanding of the large number of students who are Title I (eligible for free and reduced lunch), preschool and transitional kindergarten, and much more.
I do not want to put down these responses, because they are good responses, but at the same time, I don’t think they get to the heart of the problem.
On December 1, 2012, the Davis Human Relations Commission hosted an event called “Breaking the Silence of Racism.” About 200 community members attended and roughly 60 spoke – so many that we actually extended the event by a full hour to accommodate all who wished to make their voices heard.
We had a panel comprised of Davis City Councilmember Rochelle Swanson, Chief Deputy DA Jonathan Raven, Reverend Kristin Stoneking of the Cal Aggie Christian Association, UC Davis Executive Vice Chancellor Rahim Reed, Pam Mari from DJUSD and Captain Darren Pytel of the Davis Police Department.
The bulk of the event was about the racial climate that the average citizen in the city faces, and it was about the schools. Parents and even teachers poured out their hearts, often to the point of tears.
There was a comment yesterday in the Vanguard critical of the column by Madhavi Sunder and a poster responded to that comment by stating, “I also find it interesting that you believe a largely liberal town is ‘shunning’ people of color.”
While I cannot speak for the initial commenter, I will respond by stating that this is exactly what the anecdotal information available leads me to believe – that Davis, a largely progressive but also white and affluent town does not have a good record of treating people of color as well as we might want to believe.
In fact, that exact point was made by a local business person who came to the Davis Human Relations Commission event in December 2012. While this man was white, he spoke passionately about the experiences that his African-American grandchildren had while living in Davis.
At one point he stated that when he talks to black people, they understand. When he talks to white people, they don’t see it. “Oh no, Davis is very progressive, we’re very liberal, we don’t have a race problem. It’s this denial, that’s why the school district won’t respond, things won’t happen.”
As he explained, his grandchildren “did not do well” in the Davis schools. He said, “One of them was repeatedly bullied by white kids at school. Racial taunts (n-word, f-you, etc.)… when he finally did respond, verbally, not physically, the school suspended him.”
Ultimately, the child would be expelled for a situation that did not involve physically aggressive behavior. The man said, “He’s now in another district in Sacramento – low income, mostly black school – but he’s doing quite well.” His younger brothers are in a rich, private white school, “doing quite well – they didn’t do well in Davis.” He added, “It’s tough being African-American in Davis.”
Another parent talked about his African-American daughter’s problems in the classroom. “I’m in a biracial relationship,” he said. “Biracial children have a harder time than most of us. Because a lot of the times they can straddle both of the cultures.” He said they originally came up from Berkeley, which is diverse, and “when she came up here to the junior high, she realized that a lot of the kids up here who were African-American, they really hated themselves. They had a lot of self-hate for some reason.”
Another parent raised three African-American sons, and worried that there are not enough people, looking like her sons, teaching them in the classroom.
Another individual was concerned about Marguerite Montgomery Elementary and told the community that he has heard talk about “white flight” from the school and complaints from some parents that there are “too many minorities that look like gangbangers.”
Yvonne Clinton is a member of the Human Relations Commission and is the mother of five biracial kids – including the now famous Butterscotch Clinton – who were told “you’re not black enough” because they were very light-skinned. She said her son was asked was often about “how do black people feel about this, as though he had anything he could say about that.”
She said that there were subtle things that were said to them, and “on the whole I would say because they were so light-skinned, they were not subject to as much discrimination as other kids – but – I really thank people who have expressed this problem [at this event].”
Finally, Jennifer Higley-Chapman talked about her children in junior high and expressed dismay that she had not seen more progress in the time that her kids were in the school system. “I’ve been discouraged by going to school climate committees… feeling dismissed when I brought up racism: ‘oh we’re dealing with bullying right now.’ That’s the response I got most recently.”
She added that she wants to see school climate committees separated from school site councils. She said the two are tied together and the site council has primarily dealt with budget issues rather than climate issues.
What was interesting about these speakers is I believe all but one were white. However, they had interracial families and therefore they were able to describe the conditions of the schools, as being unaccepting to both minorities and mixed-race children, from a different perspective than we generally hear.
Pam Mari, who has since retired, was on the hot seat the most during this three hours of public comment. She noted at the time – regretfully – that the school district has for the last several years simply been in survival mode. But she felt that was not a good excuse.
I really do not believe there has been a lot done in the schools in the nearly two years since this event to change things. When we talk about the achievement gap, we can talk about educational programs all we want, but I think until we deal with the social, cultural, and racial climate at these schools, we are talking into the wind when we talk merely about programs.
Davis has, according to all reports and studies that I have seen, one of the largest achievement gaps in the region and one of the reasons for that is the disconnectedness of racial minorities and mixed-race kids.
This is what was not addressed by the candidates or the district in the last two years, and I think this is the key.
—David M. Greenwald reporting