Dr. Jann L. Murray-García is a professor at the UC Davis Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.

Viewpoints: Davis students document issues of race, test scores

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 - 12:21 pm | Page 9A

What can a high-performing school district in the relatively affluent, university community of Davis teach the nation about educational equity? It turns out we have just as much to learn, if not more, than other communities about racial disparities in schooling outcomes.

Our teachers are certified and teaching in their primary subjects, our aggregate test scores put our schools in the top 10 percent of schools statewide, and our continually successful parcel tax measures and donation campaigns buffer us from fiscal devastation. Davis Joint Unified School District does not face the challenges of widespread poverty or high numbers of English language learners, relative to districts statewide.

And yet, as we prepare to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., he would be struck that Davis' African American and Latino students are suspended at twice the rate of white and Asian students, are more likely to receive special education services than to be enrolled in gifted and talented education – the opposite pattern of white and Asian students – and are graduated at lower rates and less likely to have completed course requirements to get into UC or CSU. The usual national excuses for the racial achievement gap do not apply in Davis, and yet our children live it still.

King might say: Race still matters in America and in America's schools.

How students live and learn race in school is poignantly documented in the film, "From the Community to the Classroom: A Youth Directed Film About How Davis Young People Led Their Community Closer to Educational Equity." It will screen for free at 6 p.m. today at the Guild Theater in Sacramento.

Davis' young people tell us these issues go far beyond standardized test scores. They are issues of identity, and the role our schools play in differentially crafting those identities. Some of these unhealthy identities harken back to the stereotypes before King's day, when blacks and Latinos were believed to be less intelligent, more disruptive and potentially even criminal. Living and witnessing the uncommented on, daily experience of racial stratification in discipline and academic tracking, the first time a child realizes he or she is a "minority" is likely to be within our public schools.

Certainly no child is born a minority. Children have to learn to live that label, and sometimes bear the consequences of resisting that identity within our institutions. The highly subjective suspension category, "defiance of authority" or "willful defiance," unequally applied by race, constitutes 40 percent of suspensions in California and can spark in young people a predictable preservation of self, a trajectory of frustrated mastery that bends toward incarceration.

"From the Community to the Classroom" also features the inspiring, effective power of youth voice and activism as underused forces in closing our immoral and ultimately expensive achievement and discipline gaps. A diverse group of Davis students, sanctioned by their caring and courageous educators who are similarly frustrated by inequality, have led the way to social change in Davis. Youth have been equipped with training in action research, critical race theory and nonviolent social change strategies.

The community dialogue of how race is experienced in our schools was moved forward by youth-perpetrated hate crimes beginning in 2002. A systems-level approach, literally from community to classroom, has resulted in improvement in schooling outcomes and in what students say about their institutional experiences.

For example, on a student-created survey administered in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010, the proportion of students of all races and ethnicities who say Latinos are punished more harshly for the same behavior, and that the behavior of Latino students is watched more closely by school officials, has decreased substantially. The suspension rates for Latinos in Davis schools have been halved over the last decade.

The Davis community is also questioning the practice of allowing parents to privately test their children for the Gifted and Talented Education program. White and Asian students are three times as likely to be labeled as "gifted" by this private method. This artificial inequality speaks powerful messages in classrooms, as children may come to "learn" that whites and Asians are smarter than blacks and Latinos.

As a pediatrician, I believe measures to monitor the developmental environments that schools are creating (suspension rates, including in-house suspension, gifted vs. special education, and student observations) should take us far past test scores.

Our ongoing, often painful community story may benefit other communities. Davis young people compel us to move beyond test scores to solve what many have called the civil rights issue of our time. They tell us they can't wait for Superman, either, but are willing and capable to partner with adults to transform both our schools and the racially disparate institutional messages of inequality, seemingly built into the wallpaper as scripts for educators, students and communities to reproduce generation after generation. The young filmmakers have posted the film for free viewing at communitytotheclassroom.com, along with a decade of student research reports, a film discussion guide and an expanding set of teacher lesson plans.

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