Federal Opinion

Fear and Optimism From Calif. School Leaders

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — April 12, 2017 3 min read
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For a professor, there is nothing sweeter than seeing student succeed, and I was able to taste a bit of that last week as I moderated a panel of Claremont Graduate University alums who are now leading school districts.

They connected with three continuing ‘On California’ stories beginning with the palpable fear reported by schools and students over the Trump Administration’s actions against immigrants. The panelists presented as a part of the 21st annual Sally Loyd Casanova lectureship, named for another CGU alum who died shortly after her graduation.

“The fear is real,” said Downey Unified School District superintendent John Garcia. The leader of the 22,000-student district, where he had been a student said, “We have parents coming in and wanting to give custody of their children [to other people in case they are deported].”

Garcia, himself the son of an immigrant, said, “We are seeing a great deal of anxiety, and we’re working to keep our kids distraction free.”

Anthony Martinez reported that even though the 28,000-student Montebello Unified School District, where he is interim superintendent, has declared itself a safe zone, parents are no longer driving their children to school. Many families have disappeared from public and are not sending their children to school.

The Hacienda-LaPuente Unified School District (18,000 students) is also a safe haven. “We are fully supporting the families in our district,” said Helene Cunningham, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. “It’s heart-wrenching, especially hearing from students are worried that their parents will be taken away.”

These leaders echoed a widely reported sense of fear, particularly of children fearful of separation from their parents as a part of increasingly bold Trump Administration actions against undocumented individuals. In the Coachella Valley some students have become to scared to go to school. The report noted that the numbers of deportees in a recent Southern California sweep was actually lower than during a similar action during the Obama administration. What concerns parents and others is the expansion in who can be targeted.

A similar pattern has been reported nationwide. The Washington DC public schools advised parents to, “Discuss whether you wish your children to remain here, in the United States, or whether you would want your children going with you.” Virginia’s state superintendent Steven Staples said, “A frightened child doesn’t learn much.”

The Claremont panelists moved beyond fear to talk about the possibilities in the state’s new finance and accountability laws, which have been called the most radical restructuring in four decades. Recently, state school board president Michael Kirst, presented his assessment of the complex set of legislative initiatives that have involved the state’s entire system of education. But he said, “If you’re not improving classroom instruction, you are working at the overhead level.”

“All of our districts are very different,” said Julie Vitale, superintendent of the 3,800-student Romoland elementary district in Riverside County. “All of our children don’t need the same thing.” In her district, teachers, administrators, staff, and parents work in “accountability” groups to analyze data and correct problem areas.

But, “give it time to work,” said Cunningham. “We are building systems, and that takes time. There is no “magic pill” for closing the achievement gap, she said. “It’s just hard. We have to put faces to the data and see what they [each student] needs.”

Martinez said that his district is attempting to address the often-observed summer slump in student performance by “making summer learning fun” and less a punishment for underperforming students. As both an incentive and a contribution toward equity, the district is paying the fees for Advanced Placement exams and other exams.

Garcia noted that the state provided districts with more money and more flexibility, but then they took a hunk of the money back in the form of increased contributions to the state’s teacher pension fund to cover shortfalls. (Political attempts to fix the pension fund have been an ongoing struggle, pitting Republicans and some Democrats against the state’s teacher unions.)

My fear, he said, is that the naysayers will scare the legislature, and “we will lose progress after [Gov.] Jerry Brown leaves.”

Photos from top: John Garcia, Helene Cunningham, Anthony Martinez, Julie Vitale. Photos by William Vasta. Marquisha Spencer is a doctoral student at Claremont Graduate University and a ‘On California’ research assistant.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.