Today our collective failure to provide real educational opportunity for youth of color leaves me shaken and emboldened to speak. It’s been 60 years since Brown v. Board struck down segregation laws in schools – and 16 years since I began organizing with low-income parents and students to achieve a decent education for youth of color.
In 2008 I took a job as Campaign Organizer for the “Campaign for College and Career,” launched by the members of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth in San Francisco. As Campaign Organizer, it was my job to educate, train, and organize African American, Latino, and Pacific Islander parents and students to work with allies to push for resources to ensure students’ access to the minimum requirements for entry into California public universities (called the “A-G” course requirements).
The campaign pushed for San Francisco Unified School District to graduate 60% of all students to be college and career ready by aligning the graduation requirement with “A-G.” We also demanded student access to socio-emotional supports, tutoring, alternatives to suspension and options for retaking failed classes.
When we started the campaign, lack of access and supports meant that only one out of six African American and one out of five Latino students in SFUSD were graduating with these courses completed. Each and every year we advocated and organized for increases in resources for students to be successful and graduate on time. Each and every year, we discovered barrier after barrier that went way beyond policy changes.
The results of this work have been bitterly disappointing: According to SFUSD’s New Graduation Requirement Task Force, in 2014 less than half of African American, Latino, and Pacific Islander students are on track to complete the A-G requirements needed for graduation. By comparison, more than two thirds of White students are on track, as well as more than four fifths of Asian students. Watching the presentation of these not-yet-released data to the school board I could barely contain my anger and frustration. The data showed that the goal we had worked so hard for – the goal of graduating more than 60 percent of all subgroups – had not been achieved.
I am outraged but not surprised. In my analysis of data during implementation – and every conversation with principals, teachers, counselors, department chairs, and countless other staff and adults at all levels in and out of the classroom – the biggest barrier was people who did not believe African American, Latino, and Pacific Islander students should be college and career ready, who blatantly did not follow policy, who would not change their interpersonal practice, and who refused to give students access to the courses they needed to stay on track to graduation. More difficult to witness were the adults who did shift their interpersonal practice, who advocated and coached their colleagues, but were too few to have impact or who did not feel they had the power to be the whistleblower on their colleagues’ destructive behaviors and practices.
As the campaign organizer who fought so hard for these policies, I am enraged and disappointed that everything we did resulted in so little change for my community.
My personal experience in the education system has taught me that oppression creates the tracking system so many education justice organizers, parent leaders, and youth leaders are fighting to dismantle. For example, I entered public middle school after a year of being homeless and transitioning from my Catholic elementary school. Right away I noticed that sixth graders in “General Education” were covering material from my fourth grade lessons in Catholic School. My biggest shock was when I was identified for the Gifted And Talented Education (GATE) Program, then skipped to seventh grade Honors, that I quickly recognized as the college prep track. I learned that in public school someone was clearly deciding who would and wouldn’t get the opportunity to be college or career prepared. In fact, from eighth to eleventh grade, I was among fewer than five African American students each grade year who were in the Honors track. This was not my decision, nor was it the decision of those left behind.
How did “the system” get so entrenched in tracking? How do we accept that a school-to-prison pipeline exists? How are we okay with a majority of graduates struggling for low wage work and glass ceiling careers? How did education become the home of data-driven practices rather than the well being of every student?
I believe that the US education system has an ugly problem: it is a system run by adults. Adults don’t change quickly, unless the most critical reality is brought to their face and they are forced to make changes.
Oppression in the education system has everything to do with adults whose ideology and interpersonal and internalized oppression impact their actions. Adults create the majority of the laws, regulations, and policies, and perpetuate the practices that make it possible to have an institution. The tracking system exists because adults hold beliefs about who will be college or career prepared.
As an education justice movement, we need to be better at articulating what the school-to-prison pipeline is — a tracking system. We must go beyond throwing more money at a system designed to track. Tests are no longer needed for the tracking system to work because individual adults in the system — proponents or not — sustain tracking as a standard practice due to their personal ideologies.
In my new position as Program Director for Parent Leadership Action Network (PLAN), an organization that works primarily in the Oakland Unified School District, I continue to find that true change in education – and any other movement sector – requires us to shift the beliefs of adults to see all humans have the capacity to learn. At PLAN, we believe that increasing the skills, knowledge, and confidence of parents is critical to empowering them to transform schools so that all students have access to an education. We create trainings that require both parents and school staff to learn about how to navigate the system, how to talk about institutional racism, and how to begin building relationships that change behavior and improve school climate.
I applaud the work of groups like Kenwood Oakland Community Organizations and Journey for Justice who supported cities across the nation to file civil rights complaints with the Department of Education, demonstrating how school closures and disproportionate suspensions and expulsions are devastating Black and Latino neighborhoods. Campaigns such as these begin to call national attention to what discrimination looks like today.
All education organizers, parent leaders, student leaders, and community leaders need to tell the truth about how discrimination and adults’ personal ideology are deciding the future of students. We must never stop telling the stories of our members, leaders, and schools that live through the discrimination. We must tell the truth that oppression is so normal that it is indeed unconsciously accepted in our communities and supported in the US education system.
Education organizing is a critical element for achieving any level of justice within any sector. It is where oppression beats down the sparks of light in the next generation and trains them to believe they cannot learn, they do not matter, that they belong in prison or dead. It is our organizing, our leadership development, and our faith in our students and parents that, in the darkest times, keeps their hope alive for creating a different life for themselves,
A movement that cares about every child can look amazing. It can look like boycotting percentages being used in data and seeing every student as more than a number. It can look like honest conversations about oppression – across roles and jobs – that are beautiful, uncomfortable, and dynamic.
A movement that cares about every child does not look like silence. Silence is compliance, permission for the end result of students of color to be in the school-to-prison pipeline. I am thankful every day that I was trained to be an organizer, that I am blessed with the chance to remind our parents and students that collectively we can transform education.