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Racially charged science project prompts review of Sacramento’s elite academic programs

Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jorge Aguilar vowed to diversify the district’s academically elite programs Saturday after a C.K. McClatchy High School student’s science fair project questioned whether certain races were smart enough to compete.

The science fair project prompted a swift reaction from the district after The Sacramento Bee published an article about it Saturday morning. Aguilar released a video statement Saturday night addressing the issue.

Titled “Race and IQ,” the science project raised the hypothesis: “If the average IQs of blacks, Southeast Asians, and Hispanics are lower than the average IQs of non-Hispanic whites and Northeast Asians, then the racial disproportionality in (the school’s elite HISP program) is justified.”

The student used an online intelligence test given to a handful of students in an attempt to make his case.

Despite its content, the project was allowed to go on display at a science fair at the Land Park high school last week.

The boy who authored it is enrolled in the school’s magnet HISP program, whose 509 students include 247 identified as white, 104 Asians, 89 Hispanics, 12 African Americans, and 57 students of mixed or other ethnic background.

Mira Loma High School in the San Juan Unified District also has been criticized recently for the lack of diversity in its International Baccalaureate Program. The program has 135 white, 190 Asian, 49 Hispanic, 10 African American and 19 students of other backgrounds in its 403-student enrollment.

“No student should ever be made to feel that their race has anything to do with their ability to succeed,” Aguilar said in a video statement issued Saturday evening.

He went on to say that he intends to conduct a thorough review of the district’s specialty programs to ensure Sacramento City Unified officials have done everything necessary to ensure the pool of applicants to the programs is racially diverse, that the selection process is fair and objective, and that there is a climate of inclusion that is welcoming to all students.

“I expect my review of specialty programs, just like the one I led in Fresno Unified involving the Office of Civil Rights, will engender strong feelings on many sides, but the principle of equity, access and social justice – which we are solidly committed to in Sac City Unified – demands we look at the systems we have designed, including policy, procedures and traditions that currently produce the outcomes we seek and then boldly make changes to make better ones for each and every one of our students,” he said.

Aguilar said the district is investigating the details around the science project, specifically whether proper instructional protocols were followed. The poster detailing the project was put up Monday evening and removed Wednesday, after students complained.

It’s not clear whether a teacher reviewed the project before it was displayed.

The Bee has not spoken to the boy and is not identifying him.

“The use of racially offensive language in our schools by anyone does not reflect our values as a school district and will not be tolerated,” Aguilar said. “Many students, family members and community members have expressed how upset they are about this issue.”

Many HISP students who spoke to The Bee said the issue of diversity in the program is one they have often discussed among themselves. By Sunday morning, many were discussing the superintendent’s message over social media.

“We recognize inherent problems in the program and want to change it,” said one sophomore student in a text message to The Bee. “This problem has been discussed over group chats, at lunch, swim practice – as students we are invested in the safety and well being of our peers. We are interested in creating an equal learning environment.”

Students who spoke to The Bee also said they love the HISP program because it’s challenging and engaging and exposes them to other viewpoints and cultures. HISP – which stands for Humanities and International Studies Program – regularly sends large numbers of students to the University of California system as well as private schools that include the likes of Harvard, Yale and Stanford.

Some students worried aloud that one of the district’s academic successes would be tarnished by one student’s actions.

One sophomore said she worried the incident would “shed a negative light on who we were as people.”

Others said they felt relief that the issue had come to light.

“There was a lot of enabling going on in the HISP program that allowed this minor to say these things,” said another sophomore in an interview with The Bee. The student asked not to be identified for fear of repercussion.

This sophomore said the student in question was known for making frequent statements others saw as sexist or racist, and that students had raised concerns about his behavior to teachers and administrators, but no action was taken.

“It’s really not just this kid’s fault,” the sophomore said. “It’s the fault of the program’s environment, too.”

The sophomore was supportive of the district’s message of examining admissions and the structure of such elite programs.

“The demographic of McClatchy is not reflected in the HISP program,” the student said. “I think that this is a step in the right direction because I think there has been some controversy over that. I would like to see some reforms.”

Joyce Brown advises Black Student Unions throughout the region and is a member of the Concerned African American Parent Group, an advocacy organization pushing for racial equity in schools. Brown said she supported Aguilar’s review but wanted it to include community input.

“He needs to reach out,” she said. “Don’t use the same people he has. This has been going on since before he got here.”

Brown said she has been frustrated by previous district efforts to improve equity. “It does not go anywhere, just around in circles,” she said.

Aguilar started with the district last fall, and was previously equity and access vice superintendent for the Fresno Unified School District. The son of farmworkers, Aguilar stressed in his Saturday statement that he had personal experience with the issue and was one of the few Latinos in his college classes. He said he understood the effects that a lack of diversity can have on education.

“Equity, diversity and inclusion is very personal to me,” Aguilar said in the video statement. “Almost 30 years later, I still have vivid memories of feeling alone in my (law courses), with only a handful of other individuals who look like me.”

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert.

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