Influencers Opinion

How can public schools address the challenges faced by California’s various ethnic communities?



Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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California Influencers this week answered the following the question: How can the historical and current-day challenges faced by California’s various ethnic communities be addressed in California public schools? Below are the Influencers’ answers in their entirety.

“Dump the sugar mission projects”

Rosalind Hudnell - Former President of the Intel Foundation

Dump the sugar mission projects. It’s time to start teaching the full authentic history of this state and country. Done right, we don’t need ethnic studies. What we need is a deepening of the content of our existing curriculum to reflect the real story over the course of a student’s full learning journey. Students deserve a curriculum that consistently and thoroughly discusses the impacts of ethnicity as it relates to every aspect of our society from the start of our country to date. Waiting until high school is actually too late just as waiting until one gets into the workplace is too late to start expecting a value for diversity and inclusion exists. Corporations have been spending millions for decades to close this gap of understanding and knowledge. As someone who led one of these efforts I believe people who don’t lead diverse lives, can’t develop and lead diverse teams well. If our children are our future, we must change the narrative of how and what they learn about their ethnicity and that of others in order to create a better one.

Embrace the future by addressing inequities of the past

Kim Belshe - Executive Director of First 5 LA

We need to acknowledge some hard and uncomfortable truths. Children of color are more likely to experience significant gaps and fare worse on key indicators of well-being than their white counterparts. These gaps in infant mortality, access to health care, and early learning opportunities take hold early and can persist for a lifetime. Research also tells us the children who enter kindergarten behind – disproportionately children of color, dual language learners and from low-income household – stay behind.

To address this, we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We can’t be indifferent to the reality that not all children are treated equally and have equitable access to opportunity. We need every person involved in the public school system – and systems that contribute to a child’s school readiness – to accept these truths and acknowledge the imperative for change. We need leaders of public institutions to bring an intentional equity lens to their work – a lens that requires us to understand the root causes of disparities and identify strategies and activities to address the structural barriers different groups of children face.

There are implicit and explicit biases in our policies and practice that limit opportunity for all our children. Let’s assess and address what policies and practices are holding our kids back. We can help create a new history by letting go of the biases of the past.

“School leaders must move toward an assets-based mentality”

Vernon M. Billy - CEO and Executive Director of the California School Boards Association

The first step toward supporting all students is believing in their inherent worth and potential. All students have personal gifts and cultural strengths that can contribute toward the broader school community. In order to amplify those strengths, school leaders must move toward an assets-based mentality in order to best support all students.

We can begin the process by ensuring that curriculum and course materials are culturally relevant and reflect the experiences and contributions of California’s diverse ethnic communities. There has been great progress on these fronts when we consider the passage of the English Learner Roadmap and other initiatives. It’s crucial, however, that culturally relevant course materials not be limited to one content area, such as ethnic studies, or one group of teachers. Districts can support the adoption of this approach by diversifying their faculties, building the cultural competencies of existing staff and creating a climate where families from all backgrounds are welcomed and their voices are heard.

“California’s public schools are not working for too many minority children”

Mike Madrid - Principal at Grassroots Lab

There is no greater equalizer in a society than an effective, functional public system of education. A public education system that works for all of us is the best hope of minimizing economic disparity, achieving racial equality and diffusing the differences among us. Unfortunately that is not where California is today. Our state has failed miserably in achieving that noble goal. There is an ugly secret in California that we must begin to talk openly about. There is a close correlation in California between poverty, incarceration, housing insecurity, the lack of economic mobility and race. Black and Brown children are disproportionately impacted by all of these social ills and the immediate remedy is fixing low performing schools. The solutions must follow some basic principles: First, we must significantly increase per pupil spending in low performing public schools. These are disproportionately represented by students of color. This includes paying teachers more in districts that have higher numbers of impoverished students of color, so long as they’re coupled with stringent accountability and performance measures. Second, we must considerably enhance the resource and time commitment to both STEM focused curriculum as well as vocational training so that students of color can quickly catch up in the new economic environment regardless of their career path. Third, student centered spending must include clear accountability and outcome measures for teachers. Accountability and outcomes must be demanded by a society that entrusts its most challenged children with teachers in those classrooms. Finally, provide much greater autonomy for local districts receiving those funds to accomplish the state wide targets they are required to meet. Let’s stop treating East Los Angeles like the East Bay communities of San Francisco. California’s public schools are not working for too many minority children. It’s time to start an honest dialogue on the solutions and recognize that partisan ideological battles have failed. Let’s acknowledge that we must have more funding and more accountability and work to provide a quality education for the next generation of Californians.

“California’s future depends upon making immigrant students’ dreams possible”

Monica Lozano - President and CEO of the College Futures Foundation

California built its economy on quality, accessible education for all and was rewarded with generations of college graduates who fueled growth. Yet ethnic communities often have been left behind. Now, increased attacks on immigrants from the highest levels of government threaten to increase divisions.

Undocumented students suffer mental health crises as hate speech emboldens violence and deportations tear families apart. Because of uncertainty over DACA and new rules discouraging use of public services, many immigrants fear to seek help.

California’s future depends on ensuring that all students, especially our most vulnerable, can obtain a degree. Our society has benefited immensely from the cultural richness, new ideas, workforce, and tax contributions of immigrants. Today’s students, including those undocumented, are tomorrow’s doctors, teachers, and entrepreneurs.

The CSU recently began expanding free on-campus immigrant legal services. In 2015, the UC led the nation in providing such aid to students. But more needs to be done. We need to increase financial aid for first-generation students and allow undocumented students to receive Cal Grants with the same priority as others. Counseling services and outreach and work-study programs should be expanded.

On every campus, our message must be loud and clear: All are welcome here. Our collective future depends upon our collective success.

“A good curriculum would prepare students for meaningful discussions”

Ling Ling Chang - California State Senator (R-Diamond Bar)

As the only Asian American female in the California Legislature, I certainly understand the positive impact ethnic studies can have on our students. However, we need to actively engage all communities to ensure that all ethnic studies programs are inclusive, accurate, and informative.

The last thing we need is a deeply flawed curriculum that includes any form of anti-Semitism, uses obscure jargon, or excludes communities that have enriched our state.

A good curriculum would prepare students for meaningful discussions about all ethnicities. It would also teach empathy and challenge students to be critical thinkers.

There’s an old adage. Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. We need to teach students how to think for themselves, setting them up to be self-reliant, civic-minded members of society.

“California schools have an important role to play”

Connie Leyva - California State Senator (D-Chino)

California schools have an important role to play to help our future generations be better prepared as they live in increasingly diverse communities and eventually enter a diverse workforce. When we learn about each other, we discover that we have more in common than not.

Some of these challenges should be presently addressed in the most recent History-Social Science Curriculum Framework, which was adopted by the State Board of Education in 2016. An appropriately developed Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum would also help bolster that education for all students.

Our diverse student body should be taught by, and exposed to, a diverse teacher workforce that gives voice – and a face – to issues faced by California communities. Increasing diversity should not end in the classroom though, as we should also strive to increase diversity within the leadership at our districts and schools. Diversity among Superintendents and Principals would help all teachers improve their ability to connect with and teach our diverse student body.

We should also look at how we are training teachers while they are still enrolled in teacher preparation programs, and ensuring that they are receiving an appropriate education themselves in how they teach these challenges.

“Discussions of diversity and equity are also critical in the early years”

Deborah Kong - Children, Families, and Communities Program Officer at The David and Lucile Packard Foundation

As state policymakers considered making ethnic studies a graduation requirement, much attention has focused on high schools and universities – but discussions of diversity and equity are also critical in the early years. A core component of high-quality early childhood education is cultural competence, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

In fact, research shows that children notice racial differences from a very young age, and if caregivers do not openly talk about race with children, kids will draw their own, often erroneous, meanings from what they see, according to the Association for Library Service to Children.

Openly addressing race and ethnicity with young children is an important aspect of high-quality adult-child interactions. For young children to develop and learn optimally, early childhood professionals must be prepared to meet children’s diverse developmental, cultural, linguistic, and educational needs, according to an NAEYC position statement.

As the mother of a young child, I’ve seen the value of addressing these issues. I drew upon these resources and other learnings from my Asian American studies college courses to talk with my son after recently being the target of a racist remark in our neighborhood. Doing so gave him the confidence and language he can respond with if he needs to in the future.

Addressing ethnicity and race with our kids helps us to build a better future – one in which children grow up understanding the historical context of diverse ethnic groups and how to create more equitable and just communities.

“Continue to broadly teach and expound upon the rich tapestry of California cultures and peoples”

Janet Napolitano

Diversity in all its forms — including racial, ethnic and cultural — is intrinsic to California, defining the state as a worldwide leader in embracing unique differences and encouraging a robust exchange of ideas and perspectives. That’s why educators in public and private schools, in K-12 through higher education, must continue to broadly teach and expound upon the rich tapestry of California cultures and peoples, from indigenous groups to early Spanish and Mexican settlers, the Chinese immigrants who built our railroads to the mid-century migration of African Americans, and beyond. The University of California, for example, as one of its projects helped rewrite the 4th grade curriculum on California Missions to more realistically, wholly reflect the experiences of those who lived during that period, and our Ethnic Studies faculty and scholars have produced some of the most dynamic and influential scholarship in the field. Students, aptly armed with knowledge of where we came from, will be better equipped to shape where we go — and apply the dynamics of the past to current national and political landscapes, in addition to their personal motivations and convictions.

A diverse California requires inclusive excellence

Tim White - California State University Chancellor

We educate the most ethnically diverse university student body in the nation. Inclusive excellence is at the very core of who we are and what we do. We know that higher and richer learning for all students happens in an environment enriched by a broad diversity of people, programs and shared ideas. It starts with equitable, authentic access. That means not only admitting qualified students from all backgrounds, but also doing everything we can to ensure they are successful once they’ve arrived on campus – able to complete their degrees armed with the knowledge, skills and dispositions that enable them to meet their professional and personal goals. At all levels, California’s public schools must set a high bar for success, and then provide the holistic support necessary for all students to meet that standard. We have to meet students where they are, identifying and advancing the most successful academic advising programs – and analyzing equity-gap data to learn where improvements can be made. We need to create welcoming and inclusive learning environments with programs and classes that are sensitive and responsive to cultural and individual differences, and with educators and academic leadership who reflect the diversity of their students.

Ignorance can’t continue to be leveraged to marginalize ethnic groups

Ted Lempert - President of Children Now

Our state is blessed with public schools that are the most diverse in terms of ethnicity, religion, and language in the nation. Our collective future will be stronger as a result of our diversity. But for too long, too many of these groups have been historically marginalized or just flat out ignored. One needed change is to adopt a revised, model Ethnic Studies Curriculum that explores all dimensions of this paradigm, and also ensures the historical and current day challenges of all ethnic groups are addressed and appropriately integrated across TK-12 (learning about these challenges in only one course during high school will continue the marginalization). It’s not only essential that students study it; we also need to support kids within all of our various ethnic communities with culturally-trained, caring adults, reflective of the student body, on every campus to create a positive school climate. This requires wrap-around services and professionals who are sensitive to our diversity and the needs of each individual kid. And, that will require significantly more funding for our public schools.

California’s education challenges require extraordinary solutions

Rosie Arroyo - Board Chair for Hispanas Organized for Political Equality

In a time when the state’s education system is facing unprecedented challenges, leaders must take extraordinary steps and action to address the systemic challenges our education system is facing. The problem is clear – California’s education crisis is the result of decades-long disinvestments that have only perpetuated systems-wide inequity and poverty that have widened the gap to opportunity and access to quality educational experiences. California leaders have an opportunity to take bold action to build political will, make this a priority and make the necessary investments to strengthen our education system. In order to secure the state’s future wellbeing, California needs a vision and long-term plan to make bold, strategic investments that increase access to quality education from birth to college, embraces the state’s diversity, appreciates our teachers and supports smart policies that create equitable learning environments for 21st Century students so that they are college and career ready. The research, the experts and best practices are there – the challenge – how do we expand these opportunities to allow students to thrive? Looking towards the future, California needs investments that are forward-looking, prioritize equity and support holistic student development that meet the academic and personal needs of students.

“We need deeper engagement, which will be accomplished by the learning culture we nurture”

Myrna Castrejon - President and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association

One of the essential purposes of schooling is to craft a ‘Story of Us’ that is inclusive, that allows for our incredibly diverse student body to see themselves reflected, and to arm our students with the critical thinking skills and the opportunity to see their personal story and struggle reflected in our collective conscious. A key understanding of how identities are formed, contested and re-imagined, and how a personal narrative is formed against this social backdrop is much more important than merely checklisting a ‘heroes and holidays’ approach. We need deeper engagement, which will be accomplished by the learning culture we nurture.

My bi-racial 9th grader, Kenji, said it best:

California is pretty open minded, but a class about various cultures and histories of our peoples would change minds around biases and lead to better conversations. This kind of class shouldn’t be just ‘for ethnic minorities’ or done in a way that allows people to opt out because it doesn’t concern them - it’s about all of us and the role we play in creating and imagining a California for all.

Our current politics have made people go to their corners. We need better tools to talk to and understand each other better, not just a recitation of who contributed what.

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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