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Friday, May 04, 2007

Davis Joint Unified School District Begins to Tackle Diversity Issues

Last night at the school board meeting, there were two presentations, one made by Mel Lewis, the Climate Coordinator on the Climate Action Plan which we reported a bit on yesterday and will talk more about in the coming days. Then Interim Superintendent Richard Whitmore presented a report on addressing the needs of a diverse community.

One of the big issues that has come up time and time again with respect to diversity is the lack of African American and other minority teachers in the school district as a whole. There have been many complaints that there are zero African American teachers at the high school.

Interim Superintendent Richard Whitmore addressed this issue last night.
“First, with respect to hiring… we do understand the desire of the community to have teachers that reflect the diversity of the community, so we’ve really tried to ramp up our efforts on the recruiting front.”
Along those lines, the human resources directors have attended recruiting fairs across California—especially in diverse communities such as Sacramento, Carson, and Fresno. However, as Mr. Whitmore suggested,
“I think it would be fair to say that those recruiting fairs did not turn up a lot, it turns out that when you are competing against LA Unified, and LA Unified will offer you a job without a credential, if you have a BA degree, and their starting salary, and their starting salary is actually fairly attractive it’s really hard for us to compete and hard to draw people in to kind of a smaller community that isn’t as well known outside the immediate area.”
Other approaches have been to retain a search firm with a data base of thousands of candidates and a higher proportion of “teachers of color.” They are looking to fill 3 to 5 openings now at the high school and a smaller number in elementary and junior high school. They are also looking at expediting their hiring process by issue a letter of intent in front of good candidates to move up the process. They have often found themselves behind the curve, rather than ahead of the curve in this process.

Board Member Tim Taylor made an essential point.
“One of the problems that I’m absolutely convinced that this district has is that the inability to attract certain candidates is because they feel that they will be in an isolated environment when they get here. And we present that isolated environment to them, unintentionally, but when we go out to these recruiting fairs. And so we need to figure out a way that we can have some kind of a linkage or at least a connection that they can feel before they make the jump to here, because otherwise they won’t make the jump and that’s proven out from time and time and time again, whether we are going to North Carolina, whether we are going to Los Angeles, whether we are going to the Philippines. It’s not rocket science to figure it out and maybe we need to change our approach when we are going out to meet with folks, and make sure that there is a feeling of comfort which sometimes comes with when you see people like yourself. And Davis already has an aura about it that is somewhat concerning to people on the outside.”
Taylor in my view, nailed it on this statement. Davis does not have a good reputation to people of color who both live in this community and those who have heard about the community. It is unfortunately not a place where a lot of minorities have a desire to win, due in part to its reputation. Due also to some of the things that Nikki Smith said last week at the Human Relations Commission about being an exemplar and a role model and having a tremendous amount of pressure as one of a few minority and African American teachers in the district. I think as Mr. Taylor very aptly suggests is something that is going to take a lot of work to repair. And frankly from my experience in this community, a lot of people do not want to hear that and it was nice that Mr. Taylor was the one to say it last night.

Some of the other things they are looking at are the Unconscious Bias project—looking at what types of unconscious bias might exist and instruments to measure what kinds of unconscious bias you might bring to the classroom. This is a pilot project that has been in the works here in Davis for some time. (Click here for more information).

There are a couple of key theoretical and practical assumptions that underlie this program. First that all of us have basic “cognitive biases that influence how we perceive and make decisions about other people and that we are often guided by racial and other stereotypes of which we are completely unaware.” However, most Americans believes that racism and discrimination are things of the past and that makes it difficult to talk about racism and discrimination. Finally, we need to be able to confront these unconscious racial biases in order to eliminate some of the discriminatory practices—especially those that are unintended.

Another program coming to the high school is a class taught by Dr. Jann Murray-Garcia on “Race Relations and Social Justice in U.S. History” that has been approved for next year. The superintendent reported that the Black Student Union is back on campus and will be choosing new officers in the next few weeks and will be planning for its future. The suspension of the BSU had been a tremendous focal point in recent months, so its reformation is a positive step forward that will hopefully help to deal with some of the concerns that have been expressed in recent weeks.

At the next school board meeting they will be looking at the findings of the Achievement Gap Task Force. One of the things that Mr. Whitmore spoke about last night was student preparedness for post-secondary education. He looked at A-G completion and found that at the district level, the 2004-05 (most recent years available) that DJUSD Latinos/ Hispanics had a 32.8% completion rate which compares of course and as expected favorably with the county which had a 19.1% rate and the state which had a 24% completion rate. Likewise African Americans had a 41.7% completion rate compared with 28.9 percent at the county and 25.2 percent in the state. However as Mr. Whitmore suggested, while the statistics compare well to the county and state, for all students in this district, the completion rate is 67.8%, and so Hispanics and African Americans are dramatically lower than the district average (which itself is also well-above the state average).

There are several things that he is planning to examine in the future. First, they will look at the use of data to ensure equal access to the core curriculum and a successful base of academic skills for every student. Second, they will create professional programs for all staff on disaggregating data.

Third, they will review suspension and expulsion policies. There is a widespread belief among the students, as four years of survey data at the high school attest, that suggest a discrepancy in the punishment for African American and Hispanic students versus those for white and Asian students. So the Superintendent is going to begin to analyze their policies and hopefully this data to enable them to see if this is indeed the case (the data relate to perceptions of policy rather than practices). They also want to look at other ways to punish students other than simply suspension. For example, in the case of the DHS Malcolm X incident, it seems to me, that if this was indeed a punishable offense (which is questionable in itself), that there should have been other remedies aside from a three day suspension available to the administrators at Davis High School.

Finally on a related point, also relating to current issues they are going to review the grading policies that conflate behavior and academic performance. Here the problem is that students who are suspended not only get punished for their behavior but also academically. Many of the students who get punished for behavioral problems already have academic problems and so if they have to take zeroes on their coursework that they miss, they are simply falling further behind their contemporaries. That institutes a duel punishment and one that is not conducive to the overall goal of helping students academically who have behavioral problems. While this was not the case with the student involved in the DHS Malcolm X incident, the student nevertheless suffered greatly academically by missing several key exams. While there is of course a need to punish behavior, it does not make much sense to also punish the students academically.

While many of these changes sound good, the problem has never been coming up with good ideas, it has been following through on them. We shall talk about this again with regards to the climate programs that Mel Lewis talked about. But, Tansey Thomas, a long time community activist pointed out a 1990 report on Intergroup Group Study and a 1992 Task Force as a result of a report from the Department of Education. This report made a number of great recommendations, but it was never implemented. The only thing that has changed since the report—the finding and recommendations are all there and just needs to be updated to include Prop. 209 (end of Affirmative Action).
As Ms. Thomas said, “I don’t know why we want to start over again, everything that was a problem then, is a problem now. It’s like we’ve gone nowhere… That we form another study group, start another cycle, and it goes nowhere.”
This illustrates that while these presentations and reports sound good, if they are not implemented, nothing comes of them obviously.

Clearly the school district needs to follow through on much of these programs, but what was presented last night was tremendous in at least beginning to address many of the longstanding complaints—and these are complaints that were made over 20 years ago and probably long for that. Now the district needs to as they say—make these institutional and ongoing, so that this does not come up every so often in response to crises in the district.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting