Long before he was named the new superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District, Jorge Aguilar was a freshman at UC Berkeley who had his educational self-worth shattered on his first day of chemistry class.
“I couldn’t even follow the first lecture; I withdrew from the class,” said Aguilar, who begins work July 1 with several daunting tasks on his to-do list, including reversing Sac City Unified’s dropout rates.
Aguilar didn’t let that temporary setback define his college experience, even though he easily could have, given the challenges of his life. He stayed at Berkeley, got a degree in Latin American studies, then a law degree from Loyola Law School – accomplishments that would become the foundation of a career dedicated to helping others reach their academic potential.
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Raised in the small farming town of Parlier in Fresno County, Aguilar takes the reins in Sacramento during a difficult time for the district. Sac City Unified has seen its numbers tumble in several critical areas in recent years while other districts in the county and around the state have been making steady progress.
It’s an embarrassment that in 2016 the high school graduation rate in the capital of California was 80.5 percent, well below the state’s average. Meanwhile, the dropout rate of African American students in Sacramento was 19 percent, more than double what it was in 2013; dropout rates for special education students nearly tripled to 18 percent.
In 2013, the last year under former superintendent Jonathan Raymond, the graduation rate for Sac City Unified was greater than 85 percent. But Raymond left, worn down by teacher-union politics and a lack of support for school reforms. Caretaker superintendent Jose Banda took over and numbers began to slide. Now Aguilar is hoping to correct the course.
I had lunch with Aguilar in his hometown earlier this week, and he asked me if Sac City public schools are a priority in the minds of people who live in Sacramento. Truthfully, I don’t know.
People in Sacramento talk a good game about their commitment to public schools, but when it comes to their own kids’ education, many act in a much more mercenary manner.
It’s been true for years that in open-enrollment neighborhoods, the poorer schools suffer in a district full of haves and have-nots. The Bee’s Phillip Reese reported in 2015 that “more than 80 percent of parents who left their neighborhood elementary school instead applied to schools with higher test scores and fewer students living in poverty.”
The math here is simple. Fewer students at a school means less money for that school. If more and more students leave, that can lead to a negative spiral that penalizes the students who remain.
Raymond, who led the district during deep recessionary budget cuts, tried to change this dynamic and close the achievement gap by funneling extra resources into what he called “priority schools” in high-poverty neighborhoods. Part of that plan included protecting teachers at those schools from seniority-based layoffs, a move the teachers union fought. That battle came to define Raymond’s tenure.
Aguilar, who can be seen as a reformer in his own right, comes to Sacramento from the Fresno Unified School District, where he served as associate superintendent for equity and access. It was his job to root out favoritism and spread opportunities evenly. Last year, Fresno Unified had a higher graduation rate than Sacramento – 85.4 percent. Four years earlier, when Aguilar was brought in, the rate was 75 percent.
“He played a huge role,” said Robert G. Nelson, a Sacramento native who is the interim superintendent at the Fresno Unified School District. “He’s brilliant.”
In person, Aguilar comes across as energetic and meticulous. He wears scholarly glasses and crisp dress shirts. Every dark hair on his head is in place.
He is a big believer in data, which he said helped guide Fresno toward improved graduation rates by channeling more kids into summer and night school. He also believes in going the extra distance to engage parents of kids who are struggling academically. Additionally, Aguilar helped move the district toward greater educational rigor through an increased offering of AP classes.
Aguilar said he is driven by his own experience as a student who might have dropped out but didn’t. His parents were loving but unable to support him or guide him as he advanced in school because of language and cultural limitations. Just before he went to Berkeley, his father was incarcerated on a drug charge, plunging his family into despair.
Growing up in a community of impoverished farmworkers – Aguilar said he hadn’t interacted with Asians or African Americans until he arrived in Berkeley – creates traps and dangers that often scuttle academic careers before they start. When Aguilar visited his old high school in Parlier earlier this week, he grew wistful staring at a photo of his graduating class, remembering kids who were undone by their circumstances, even though they were no less intelligent than he was.
“I had key people, counselors, intervene in my life, but student success shouldn’t depend on that kind of luck,” he said. “We should aspire to equal opportunity and for students to have the greatest amount of post-secondary choices from the widest amount of options. I live that.”
Raymond once told me that despite lip service paid by many in the community to closing the achievement gap between white and nonwhite students, he often got pushback from parents whenever he tried to raise performances in Sacramento’s poorer neighborhoods. As one zero-sum-game parent told him: “You’re not just the superintendent for poor kids. You’re the superintendent for all kids.”
Aguilar arrives with his own mission of educational equity. The new Sacramento schools chief is a living example of what can happen if a poor kid from a turbulent background gets access to higher education. A kid like that can impress colleagues so much with his ingenuity and grit that they are truly sad to see him go, as Fresno educators are with Aguilar. A kid like that can put his family back together and remain close to them as the bad years fade further into the past.
Aguilar lives that life, doting on his mom and dad, who remain in Parlier. As he said goodbye to old friends in his hometown, they looked at him in wonder. He made it. He wants to help Sacramento kids make it. The question is: Will Sacramento let him?