Marcos Bretón

Why a racist school science project questioning intelligence is not surprising

It would be a travesty anywhere it happened, but it’s particularly odious that a racist science project produced by a misguided McClatchy High School kid was displayed publicly on a campus supported by tax dollars.

In this case, the McClatchy kid was justifying terrible diversity numbers in the school’s celebrated specialty program of “elite” kids by arguing that African Americans, Southeast Asians and Latinos are dumber than other kids like him. “Therefore, the racial disproportionality of (the Humanities and International Studies program at McClatchy) is justified,” the report read.

There are a lot of people up in arms about this, and rightfully so. But for a moment, let’s focus on those who are less angry about racism in a school science project and more angry at how this public debacle damages the reputation of HISP, McClatchy and the Sacramento City Unified School District.

If you are in that category, then you are part of the problem. If you’re more mad that this story became public in The Sacramento Bee on Saturday and more worried about the “reputation” of HISP than anything else, then you can claim ownership for supporting a culture of exclusivity that made the racist science project possible.

Jorge Aguilar, the Sacramento schools superintendent, is not in this category. On Saturday, Aguilar released a strong video statement in which he promised to do a deep dive on specialty programs throughout the district to make sure they are as equitable as they can be.

My response as I watched Aguilar’s video Saturday night: Good luck, buddy. Other superintendents have tried and failed to make Sacramento’s public school district more fair to disadvantaged students.

In my 28 years of living in Sacramento, writing about the district and becoming a district parent myself in the last year, I have learned this: Sac City Unified is about equity and closing the achievement gap in theory. But in practice? It never seems to work out that way because working toward true equity always hits a buzz saw of self-interest and resistance from parents and the teachers union.

Jonathan Raymond, one of Aguilar’s recent predecessors, made closing the gap between minority and non-minority students his hallmark. He stabilized funding for “priority” schools in high-poverty areas and tried to keep them from losing good teachers by skipping traditional seniority rules when making layoffs – a practice that prompted a class action lawsuit against the district. He wanted to use test scores in performance reviews, which earned him the enmity of the teachers union. He infused his public rhetoric with soaring language about lifting all kids up, not just the ones born on third base.

Raymond had to do the dance that all inner city superintendents have to do: He had to publicly embrace his most well-heeled and well-positioned parents, while getting a belly full of their constant griping whenever they perceived a threat to their precious school programs.

It’s a brutal battle: Sac City gets crushed every year when statewide test scores come out. McClatchy HISP and other specialty programs become some of the few success stories that can be built upon. So a false choice emerges: Superintendents are pressured to keep their hands off programs like HISP and look elsewhere to make reforms. In the process, these programs grow cultures of exclusivity. Legitimate sources of school pride become incubators of arrogance. That was my impression of HISP after touring McClatchy last year.

You have a program of parents, students and administrators who are a little too enamored of their culture above all else.

“I didn’t like the admissions criteria at (some specialty programs),” Raymond said. “They can be exclusionary and not fully identify the potential of a kid.”

Raymond said he might have tried to reform specialty programs like HISP had he stayed in Sacramento, but noted that “you bleed a lot of political capital when you do that.”

Instead, he said he worked to create priority schools in low-income neighborhoods.

“I worked to level the playing field by having more choices. Ultimately, our priority schools were about showing what could happen when the neediest kids have adults who believe in them and push them.”

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t wonderfully dedicated people at McClatchy, because there are. HISP is a terrific program that prepares students for the rigors of college. McClatchy High School is a jewel of Sacramento whose graduates include the current chief justice of the state Supreme Court and the current state attorney general.

This should not be about tearing down McClatchy High School or the child in question. He’s a minor. His identity should not be revealed. But it’s on the district to teach him and his family why he was wrong. What we know about the student is that he is a boy of Asian descent. For all we know, this student was influenced by a feeling by some in the Asian community that they are discriminated against in the college admissions process.

A 2014 lawsuit argued that Harvard University had a cap on Asian students. In the intense competition for elite spots at major universities, there is an argument made by some that diversity admissions prefer African Americans over Asians. Or maybe the student is defensive that of 509 students in HISP, there are only 12 African American students, 89 Latino students and 104 who are Asian. Maybe there are other, darker views at work here? We don’t know.

But we do know that Aguilar is right. Sac City is a public school district supported by public dollars. “No student should ever be made to feel that their race has anything to do with their ability to succeed,” Aguilar said.

Achieving equity was Aguilar’s job in the Fresno Unified School District, where he produced real success before moving to Sacramento last year. Based on last year’s numbers, Fresno Unified had a higher high school graduation rate than Sacramento – 85.4 percent. Four years earlier, when Aguilar was brought in, the rate was 75 percent. As of last year, the high school graduation rate at Sac City was 80.5, well below the state average.

Aguilar, the son of farmworkers, holds a degree from UC Berkeley and graduated from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He was hired to reform Fresno Unified after a math teacher changed an F to an A for a high school football player, according to The Fresno Bee. Aguilar seized on that public scandal to guarantee equal access to all students. He revamped summer school programs. He focused more attention in the district to schools that needed help – and it worked.

Can Aguilar do that in Sacramento?

If history is any judge, Aguilar has a tough, lonely fight ahead. When it comes to real school reform at Sac City, best efforts often fail because too many people don’t want reform at all. The McClatchy kid isn’t a rogue agent in this story. He is a product of an educational environment where opportunity is segregated and has been for a very long time.

Marcos Bretón: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton

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