As the San Diego Unified school board elections come to an end Tuesday, Latino parents are hopeful that the district’s next leaders will work hard to close the achievement gap and address discipline policies that have led to suspension rates that are higher for their children than others. They also want to know that children are being taught history in a culturally responsible way.
When asked by inewsource about those concerns, four candidates seeking seats on the board weighed in with their ideas. Most agree that they are valid concerns but sometimes differ on ways to address them.
On Tuesday, voters will make their final selections for two seats on the school board.
This year, voters, for the first time, elect school board candidates who will represent their sub-district instead of the district at large. The change, approved in a 2020 ballot measure, is meant to increase diverse representation on the school board and improve the playing field for candidates with less funding and name recognition.
Shana Hazan, a former Chicago public school teacher and parent, and Godwin Higa, an adjunct social psychology professor at Alliant International University and former principal and educator, are competing to represent San Diego Unified’s northeastern Sub-District B, encompassing neighborhoods from Serra Mesa and Kearny Mesa to San Carlos which lie within the boundaries of Canyon Hills High School and Henry High School.
Cody Petterson and Becca William are competing for the district’s coastal Sub-District C, which includes University City, La Jolla and Point Loma high school areas. Petterson is an anthropology lecturer at UC San Diego and a senior policy adviser of Land Use, Environment and Tribal Affairs in the office of San Diego County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer. Williams is a charter school founder and former classroom teacher in Texas.
Whoever wins will join three other district trustees in representing California’s second-largest school district, where nearly half of the more than 114,000 students are Latino.
Among many issues facing Latino students in the district, the achievement gap is a top concern for parents, inewsource found.
Hispanic or Latino students in general education at San Diego Unified had the lowest graduation rate (85%) of any racial or ethnic group during the 2020-21 school year, and they had the second lowest graduation rate (61%) in special education, according to state data. The data combines Hispanic and Latino students in the same category and does not indicate whether students identify with specific racial categories.
Being at risk of not graduating isn’t a problem that appears out of the blue when a student reaches high school, said Happy Feliz Aston, a San Diego Unified parent of two Latinx children with special needs. Childhood literacy can predict a student’s chance of graduating, she said.
Research supports her concerns.
Individuals who don’t read proficiently by the third grade are four times more likely not to receive a high school diploma than proficient readers, a 2011 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found.
Aston said she finds the issue concerning because education can determine someone’s life trajectory, and our economy will also eventually depend on students who grow up and join the workforce.
“What does our city, our county, our state or country look like if we have all of these individuals who don’t achieve at that same level and for whom interventions, at least so far, don’t appear to be moving the needle,” she said.
“Interventions need to be put into place when that child is seven and not when that child is 17,” said Aston, who wants to see schools offer more opportunities for gifted and special education students. Aston started paying attention to the district’s decisions after Patrick Henry High School canceled some honors classes.
Some students face food insecurity, transportation challenges, or disabilities and it’s important that schools are staffed to provide interventions to help those students succeed, she said.
Academic achievement is also concerning to Madga, a San Diego Unified parent who asked to go by her first name due to her immigration status. She says her daughter struggled with English and math during the pandemic when she was in first grade.
“There was a time when I got frustrated because the teacher told me Samantha is like a little girl in Kindergarten, and when they tell you something like that, it’s discouraging. … I saw that my daughter wasn’t prepared to go onto second grade,” she said in Spanish.
Samantha isn’t alone in struggling with English and math. Overall, about 38% of Hispanic or Latino students in the district met or exceeded the standard for English Language Arts compared to nearly 72% of white students in the 2021-22 school year, according to the state’s Smarter Balanced standardized test scores. In math, only about 24% of the district’s Hispanic or Latino students met or exceeded the standard compared to about 62% of white students.
Hispanic or Latino students were scoring higher in English and math before the pandemic when about 43% of them met or exceeded the English standard, and nearly 32% met or surpassed the math standard in the 2018-19 school year.
Candidates running for school board have varying plans for addressing the achievement gap, and tests aren’t the only way to define it, they say.
The results from a standardized test may not be a true reflection of what a child knows, Higa said.
“I’m not really into the standardized test results because it’s just a snapshot… report cards that (teachers) give out to parents is a true assessment of the student,” he said.
Teachers should look at a variety of indicators when deciding how to help students, he said. If elected, Higa said he would like to change the grading system to end the use of letter grades and promote a mastery approach to teaching, where educators help struggling students through small group work and define student progress based on the individual’s report card and the class’ overall understanding of an academic subject.
Hazan believes it’s critical to know where students are academically and the specific skills they need using a data-driven approach – standardized tests and formative reading and math assessments administered by teachers provide some of those insights. But it’s also important to know who a student is, what barriers may be in their way and what supports are available to help, drawing on various data sources for insights, she said.
“If we want to build a district where demographics are no longer correlated with achievement, we need to use a whole child and whole family approach that recognizes how social determinants of health impact a student’s ability to learn and thrive over the long term,” Hazan said.
“That’s why I think community schools can be really transformative,” she said, referring to the district’s recent designation of five campuses as community schools as part of a new state grant program. Each will have a site coordinator to build partnerships within the community to provide services to address the unique needs of students.
“These aren’t easy things, but these are things we can do when we develop really thoughtful plans,” Hazan said.
The achievement gap among Latino students is the result of an underlying inequality gap that’s partially ethnic and racial in nature, Petterson said. But there was already an existing achievement gap before the pandemic – and the pandemic just exacerbated the forces that led to the gap, he said.
To close the gap, he said, “We have to provide (students) with some of the same things that affluent families are providing to their children,” including “high dosage” tutoring, where students receive frequent one-on-one tutoring or tutoring in small groups, and robust afterschool programs.
For Williams, classroom order and management are key to creating a learning environment where students who are behind can get up to speed.
She disagrees with a restorative justice notion that disciplinary measures “inevitably” lead to trauma, And instead advocates for “addressing behaviors that are unhelpful for learning” and reinforcing good behaviors.
“I bring a different perspective on classroom order and management, and I think that that goes a long way into providing an environment where learning is possible,” she said.
Some Latino parents also are troubled by the disciplinary rates among Latino students in the district, saying they are higher than what other students face. In the 2019-20 school year, 2.6% of Hispanic or Latino students at San Diego Unified were suspended compared to the district-wide suspension rate of 2.2%.
Of the more than 200 schools in San Diego Unified, eight of them have double-digit suspension rates among Hispanic or Latino students, compared to only five schools with the same trends among white students.
“It makes me wonder, are there differences in how Latino students’ behavior is perceived versus another ethnic group’s behavior?” Aston questioned, calling on the district to implement a goal of zero suspensions.
The district can suspend a student for a number of reasons, including any weapon, alcohol or drug-related offenses, violence, or disruption or defiance.
But sometimes schools don’t have the resources to address a child’s social and emotional needs, so the child acts out, and they often get punished rather than rehabilitated, said Jessica Huerta, a San Diego Unified parent who is pursuing a doctorate in sociology at UCLA. Schools suspend children as a last resort when they don’t know what else to do, but it isn’t effective, she said.
“Say they don’t have a grandma or grandpa … that come and watch them like they’re going to be at home by themselves. … They’re not going to make any advancement on their education and they’re probably not thinking about why they got suspended,” Huerta said.
Many young children also are not taught how to breathe and think rationally when upset, and their behavior “snowballs,” so the district should hire professionals who can float around campus and help students better manage their socio-emotional needs, she said.
The disciplinary rate worries Magda as well. However, she blames students, not the schools, and says parents should talk to their children about any trouble their children may be facing.
Most candidates expressed support for restorative justice interventions, such as those set out in the district’s current discipline policy, as better than more punitive disciplinary actions for students. Two of the four say more serious disciplinary actions are sometimes appropriate.
On one end of the spectrum, Higa sees suspensions as a tool used by principals and teachers who lack trauma-informed education. The former Cherokee Point Elementary principal was recognized for reducing suspensions and turning the school into San Diego’s first trauma-informed school in 2012, according to an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune. He said the amount of trauma a person goes through can affect their learning. When a student lashes out or becomes extremely quiet and closed off, it’s often a sign of trauma, he said.
“What happens is people don’t understand it, so we just suspend them and put them into alternative schools and all that, not realizing that we have to give them resources to talk about how we can repair the trauma that they went through,” he said. “My platform is to make people realize – principals, teachers, board members – that suspension doesn’t work.”
In similar comments, Hazan said suspensions reinforce bad behavior and are stigmatizing to students. But restorative practices can change the outcome, she said, adding that she wants to make sure the district’s policy is being carried out.
“We have a district policy that in writing says … we don’t want to use suspension and expulsion and punitive discipline. So that exists on paper, but it doesn’t exist in every single classroom,” she said.
Expressing a slightly different view, Petterson said that though restorative justice often provides an alternative, sometimes disciplinary action is necessary to have a safe learning environment. However, in the process of punishing a student by suspension or expulsion, the student could fall behind, which is counterproductive. Schools must create a culture to make restorative justice work, he said.
“It’s not restorative justice in the sense of what you do in terms of your punishment alternatives,” he said. “It’s how you establish a classroom and campus environment that actually is resilient to conflict that gives students ways to talk about and manage conflict and help students build relationships that prevent escalation of conflict.”
It’s a challenging task, but schools can make progress toward ending racial disparities in discipline through robust instruction that fosters social and emotional skills and increasing the number of counselors on campuses, he said.
Williams said restorative justice programs offer great insights into how to resolve conflict, but other forms of discipline are necessary in creating environments where children can learn. She said she understands parents’ concerns.
Latino families are “sincerely frustrated” with higher suspension rates for their children, but the question is “were rules applied fairly that had nothing to do with skin color,” she said.
“I wouldn’t just whitewash it and say they’re imagining something that doesn’t exist,” she said of parents of Black and Latino students. Black students had the highest rate of suspensions of any race or ethnic group, at 5.1% for the 2019-20 school year.
Williams said a starting place for healing would be to show parents that the district’s policies are fairly applied.
“We really need to make everything transparent and to make it clear that there is a certain protocol and procedure that is constantly enforced and that there is no discrimination whatsoever on race, gender or class, and that everyone gets the exact same treatment and that it’s manifestly clear for every parent and every person.”
In June 2021, San Diego Unified approved adding anti-racism and ethnic studies education into its curriculum. It was a move important to Huerta, who said she believes U.S. history should be framed for students in a way that’s full, fair and equitable.
Some school board candidates differed on how schools should approach lessons involving race.
Petterson said students deserve to see the place of their community in the history of America and the fabric of America.
“It’s not like these kids are living in a vacuum. They’re experiencing their own community,” he said.
“To not have a conversation about the nature of ethnicity, race, class in America and inequality is like, what are they going to do? You’re not equipping them to understand the world in which they pride themselves,” Petterson said.
Williams says “America’s warts,” including the treatment of Natives and enslavement of African Americans, are important to cover in U.S. history class, but some of the philosophies that “animate the curriculum” are “problematic.”
“Ethnic studies can be done really well or it can be done in a way that’s actually highly political, not true and accurate to the entirety of history and actually creates new forms of demonization and dehumanization,” she said. “I’m against teachings and interpretations that view everything through the lens of race.”
Asked to provide examples of who ethnic studies demonizes or how courses have been politicized, Williams did not elaborate.
Huerta said she wants a school board candidate running for her children’s district to recognize that history has been framed and written by victors to the exclusion of other perspectives.
“It’s been white men that have access to archives and newspapers to go and write history. But we’re not all white men… there could be women of color that have different perspectives, that ask different questions and those questions, those perspectives, were not put into U.S. history.”
In-person early voting has already kicked off, and voters in San Diego Unified’s Sub-districts B and C can begin voting for the candidate of their choice. On Election Day, voting centers and ballot drop boxes will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Find your nearest polling place here.