Parents and students sought answers Wednesday night at a McClatchy High School forum after a controversial science fair project prompted the district to examine whether minority students have been unfairly denied access to top academic programs in the city.
About 250 people showed up for the event that included Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Sacramento City Unified School District Superintendent Jorge Aguilar, who previously focused on equity issues in Fresno schools.
The forum came after a student two weeks ago displayed a science project titled “Race and IQ” that hypothesized that students of African American, Latino and South Asian descent didn’t have the intelligence to participate in the school’s Humanities and International Studies (HISP) college preparatory program. The project remained on display during a science fair for two days before complaints from students and others prompted its removal.
An analysis of high-achieving programs in Sacramento and surrounding districts by The Bee found that African American and Latino students are often underrepresented. Aguilar announced after the science fair controversy that the district would review academically challenging programs to assess if changes are needed to ensure access for all students.
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The incident prompted an examination into how students are selected for top programs like HISP, which annually sends graduates to top four-year colleges. Advocates for underrepresented minorities said students and their families learn too late about academic offerings that give students an advantage when applying for college.
“I didn’t hear about the HISP program when I signed up for high school classes,” sophomore Xavier Porter said. “I found out my freshman year, when a fellow student was explaining why he was better than me because he was in HISP.”
Speaking Wednesday, Aguilar said that too many students coming out of local schools aren’t prepared for a program like HISP. He said he would focus on improving overall student outcomes.
At the forum, the superintendent said the district reviewed data and found that 260 out of 3,303 eighth graders applied to HISP last year. An additional 349 students who were eligible did not apply; of them, 130 were Asian American, 91 were Latino and 22 were African American.
The program accepts about 140 students annually, according to the prospective student page. Spots are offered to students who meet the basic criteria and score in the top 20 percent at district middle and K-8 schools.
Carlos Molina, 32, a former McClatchy student, called on the district to discipline the teacher responsible for the science fair.
“Where was that science teacher?” he asked. “Where was the adult in the room who could have had a teachable moment?”
Steinberg said Wednesday night he hopes the school and Sacramento will use the controversy as a starting point for change.
“Out of controversy must come something good,” Steinberg said. “Out of pain, out of genuine pain, must come transformational change. The issues that arose at McClatchy High School over the last few weeks are very real and must be confronted.”
He said the science project contained “reprehensible ideas” that cannot be ignored and added that the problem of race and segregation is not just a high school problem, but a community issue.
“Let this be the beginning, not the end of a dialogue that makes Sacramento proud,” Steinberg said. “This is a terrific high school and the HISP program is (terrific). The question is, what is it going to take to diversity the program and other programs?”