Does Sacramento have the will to reform its public schools so that a more diverse pool of students is ready to compete for the most elite high school programs in town and the most elite colleges and universities in America?
I don't know. Jorge Aguilar, the new superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District, doesn't know either. It's an open question without a reassuring answer, but Aguilar is going to try to upend the district's public schools.
Newly arrived from a distinguished career as an educational reformer in Fresno, Aguilar has a vision for lifting more kids beyond their limited prospects. He has the data to show that Sac City is falling short in its mission to prepare the city's future workforce and it's operating under a system where a select few students excel and everyone else is mired in underachievement.
The story of Sacramento City Unified has dominated for the last two weeks by the revelation that a student at C.K. McClatchy High School produced a racist science project that purported to excuse a lack of diversity within an elite McClatchy program by arguing that black, Latino and Southeast Asian students weren't smart enough to compete.
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Parents, teachers, students and community members reacted fiercely. Some said the controversy was about a student and his conservative views. It was his fault, some argued. Some blamed the parents of the student. Some blamed his teachers for allowing the student to make broad generalizations about races of human beings by polling a small handful of students. Some wondered, "Where were the adults?"
Aguilar, a lawyer and data expert, was unmoved by the uproar. He rejected the condemnation of the student and his teachers. He did not agree with suggestions that the Humanities and International Studies Program at McClatchy was lacking in diversity because black and Latino families were not sophisticated enough to prepare their children.
When Aguilar faced a crowd of 250 concerned community members last week, he wanted no part of finger pointing or excuses. To him, the issue at McClatchy is far more profound than a story about racial insensitivity expressed in the work of a student. He told the audience that what ails Sacramento schools goes far beyond one student. It's about thousands of students.
It's about a school system that prepares too few students for its best programs and for success in college.
McClatchy HISP, and other specialty programs in Sacramento's public schools, are exclusive for a reason: The best students are too few in number across the district. The district is failing the vast majority of students who are not qualified for HISP by the time they reach ninth grade. They aren't qualified because they haven't been prepared from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Some hypersensitive McClatchy parents have responded to criticism that HISP lacks in diversity by worrying that Aguilar would lower the standards of prized academic programs in Sacramento schools.
Aguilar had a surprise this week. He doesn't want to lower the standards of HISP. He doesn't want to employ affirmative action to admit more black, Latino and Southeast Asian students.
He wants to do something much more difficult. He wants to reach down to students sputtering along in the school system and raise the expectations of their academic performances. He wants to have more students prepared to be eligible for HISP.
"I was disturbed by what I saw in the data," Aguilar told me. "The data shows a low number of eighth-grade students who are demonstrating the academic achievement levels we want."
For example: HISP admits students based on grades in seventh grade and the first quarter of eighth grade, plus test scores and a written essay. The top students based on this criteria qualify for a program that prepares them for the rigors of college.
In HISP, students are required to absorb and analyze literature. They are taught how to study effectively. HISP students travel abroad, they become immersed in literature and eventually leave McClatchy with the confidence to excel at the best universities.
But when Aguilar studied the data, he found that of more than 3,000 ninth-graders in the district, only 207 qualified for HISP. Of those, 81 applied to HISP and 76 applied to other specialty programs. That left 50 students who qualified for HISP, or other elite programs, who didn't apply.
Even if you found spots for those 50 students into the best Sacramento programs, the diversity numbers still would be low. Getting those students into specialty programs is a lot easier than growing the number of accomplished kids beyond 50. But that's what Aguilar wants to do.
"It can't just be about what we do in the eighth grade. We have to go back to early learning and determine how many students are falling off track," he said. The first step in this process begins this summer, when Aguilar is leading a re-examination of summer school in the district.
In years past, Sac City parents had to take the initiative to sign their children up for summer school. Aguilar said struggling students will be identified if they are failing classes, have excessive absences or emotional issues.
Those students entering first, third, seventh and ninth grades will be asked to enroll in summer school to make up for past struggles. Parents or guardians would have to opt out of enrolling their children and give a reason why.
"Summer learning loss is real and we have to disrupt it," Aguilar said.
He hopes parents will ask how many resources are necessary to reduce the number of students who need to attend summer school and how to have more real-time information throughout the year to know if their children are on pace to meet grade-level readiness.
The answer is that he doesn't have the budget for it. "But we express our priorities through budgeting," he said.
In the coming months, you might see Aguilar come up with alternative budget models that take into consideration the strongest predictors of overall success - students' academic performance, attendance rates and behavioral patterns.
"We have to make sure we serve as many students as possible," he said. "What we want is a system where the most students have the greatest number of post-secondary choices from the widest array of options."
Is Sacramento committed to reforming its public schools?
Aguilar is going to try to make it happen. It will be a community-wide failure if Sacramento doesn't support its revolutionary superintendent.