Marcos Bretón

What to do about the racist science project roiling McClatchy High School? She has ideas

'Why am I the only brown face in this program?' asks McClatchy High HISP alum

Dr. Gema Godina-Martinez, the principal of Washington Elementary School and an alumnus of McClatchy High School's elite HISP program, told the Bee about the painful lack of diversity she saw in the program at her alma mater.
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Dr. Gema Godina-Martinez, the principal of Washington Elementary School and an alumnus of McClatchy High School's elite HISP program, told the Bee about the painful lack of diversity she saw in the program at her alma mater.

After the story broke that a student in an elite academic program at C.K. McClatchy High School had created a blatantly racist science project for a campus competition, Gema Godina-Martinez was pained but not surprised.


A Sacramento elementary school principal, Godina-Martinez, 42, intimately knows McClatchy, a place that for years has not been proactive enough in making its top programs accessible to more students of diverse backgrounds, she said.

In the early 1990s, Godina-Martinez was one of those elite students herself, part of McClatchy’s Humanities and International Studies Program, or HISP. She later worked as a educator and assistant principal at McClatchy for 18 years before taking the top job at Washington Elementary school on 18th and E streets in Sacramento.

She said she remembers being one of the only brown faces in the same advanced McClatchy program that currently matriculates the author of that misguided science project, which was titled “Race and IQ.” In it, the student, who is a sophomore, set out to prove that the racial disparity in HISP was justified.

To do that, the student applied flawed logic and junk science, giving a handful of teenagers an online IQ test. The student found that “non-Hispanic whites and Northeast Asians have an IQ advantage of 15 points over blacks and Southwest Asians, and 10 points over non-white Hispanics.” Therefore, the student, who peers say is of Northeast Asian descent, concluded that black, Hispanic and Southeast Asian teenagers aren’t as smart as those who are white and Northeast Asian.

Why the student’s teacher and the school’s administration were so slow in recognizing and reacting to a project that falls so far below both academic and community standards is a question that still needs answering. But for Godina-Martinez, the situation illustrates issues that have existed at the school, and in HISP, for far too long.

“A lot has come out recently that HISP isn’t that diverse, and that was true when I was a student,” she said. “I was not able to relate to the kids in my classes, where they vacationed, the businesses their parents owned, where they lived. ... I remember learning about Latin American studies and being the only person of color in the class.”

Those feelings of otherness became so acute that Godina-Martinez said she decided to drop out of HISP in her senior year because she “didn’t fit” with her fellow students.

After leaving HISP, Godina-Martinez said she spent the remainder of her senior year tutoring McClatchy students who were learning English as a second language. It was during that time that she met teens she thought to be as capable as her counterparts in HISP, but disadvantaged by their backgrounds.

“Once I started tutoring, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, there are all these other students that are not at the forefront,’ ” she said. “Then you start to see all this potential. I started asking: ‘How are we tapping into this? What are we doing about all this?’ 

This revelation gave Godina-Martinez a purpose for her life – helping marginalized students gain more educational opportunities. She set a goal: She would get her college degree and then become a teacher herself. But she wouldn’t become a teacher just anywhere.

“I realized I had to come back to McClatchy and work here,” she said.

Which she did, eventually becoming an assistant principal. As an administrator, she said she pushed to make HISP more accessible to students from diverse backgrounds but had little success.

“HISP has been in place for 30-plus years and efforts have been made – and continue to be made – for it to reflect the community and the demographics of the school,” Godina-Martinez said. “It’s an ongoing struggle. This inequity has been in place for a long time.”

To get into the program, students must complete a comprehensive application that includes teachers’ recommendations. According the program’s website, “qualified applicants who meet criteria and score in the top 20 percent at each of the district’s middle and K-8 schools are offered a slot.”

HISP currently is 70 percent white and Asian, a composition that doesn’t reflect the diversity of the school, the community or the city.

At McClatchy, Godina-Martinez said she tried to work within the system and crack the door to kids who might not have the same family resources or support as other students.

“I kept getting told no,” she said. “I was asking if we could hold two spaces in HISP for our top English language learners. I said, ‘Let’s change the world for two of these kids.’ I was told they have to apply like everybody else.”

“It was really upsetting,” she said. “I think at the end of the day, if we really want to integrate these programs, we can.”

So what would it take to do that? Clearly, we are dealing with a complex educational quandary that has as much to do with socioeconomics as it does with academic preparedness and intellectual abilities.

Much of the work has to be done before students even apply to programs such as HISP. The district needs to do a better job identifying prospective students, preparing them for the rigors of competitive magnet programs and informing their families about the admissions process.

HISP representatives used to do far more outreach and recruitment at middle schools, a practice the district reportedly has since discouraged. Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jorge Aguilar, who championed equity when he headed the Fresno school district, should address this as he looks into how to diversify the district’s academically elite programs.

But once students are in HISP, there is plenty that McClatchy can do.

The school needs to create stronger support systems to better nurture students who may feel different or isolated. Keeping them in the program matters, for both those students and for future classes. When prospective students visit HISP, they should see faces that look like their own, and not feel like they are going to be “the other” if they enter the program.

After graduating from McClatchy, Godina-Martinez earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Sacramento State, and then a master’s degree in multicultural education and her doctorate in educational leadership. For her Ph.D. dissertation, she wrote about the critical need for support networks for Latino educators. She detailed how Latino students, and other children of color, have been excluded or marginalized in the educational system.

It’s a powerful read. Some of the historical chapters on the resistance to creating opportunities for minority students echo today’s discussions about racism and equity at McClatchy and other local schools.

In her career, Godina-Martinez has worked to remain faithful to the mission of education, taking the long view and never giving up on teaching every kid, “not just the kids who are already doing well,” she said.

She said she feels that McClatchy has the same values. She expresses solidarity with Principal Peter Lambert and all the McClatchy teachers and administrators who have dedicated their lives to helping kids. “I love McClatchy,” she said. “Along with Washington Elementary, McClatchy is my home.”

She said she supports Aguilar’s pledge to bring more equity to Sacramento’s public schools, though she knows from her history – and history at large – that no change in education is made without first winning a battle over resistance.

“We can’t just say good luck to (Aguilar),” she said. “We have to throw the full weight of who we are into the struggle because it is a struggle. It is political, and there will be backlash. We have to be mindful of removing barriers for kids and we can do that. We know what we need to do. So let’s do it.”

McClatchy High seniors Jonah Wiener-Brodkey and Amos Karlsen are trying to increase African-American and Latino diversity in the school's elite Humanities and International Studies Program for their senior project.

Marcos Bretón: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton

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