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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

DHS Events Show Both the Promise and Problems of Race in Davis

As adviser Dr. Jann Murray-Garcia said in her introduction last night, "Adults, I wish we could just learn from young people, they are not afraid to go there [ask tough questions and make tough conclusions]. Adults are afraid to go there." In many ways this embodied the entire presentation of the research designed, conducted and implemented by the Davis High School Catalysts for Social Justice Student Research Scholars. This panel of 13 students of racially, ethnically, religious and academically diverse backgrounds was commissioned to ask the tough questions that the school district and we as a community have dealt with all year and for many years. It explored "the causes and solutions to the persistent disparities in academic achievement and discipline patterns seen at DHS and throughout this high-performing school district."

This research was arranged and presented as an academic would collect, analyze, and present their research at a conference. Dr. Murray-Garcia announced that the course "Race and Social Justice in U.S. History" had been approved by the school district. It is a course that meets the graduation requirement for U.S. History and "explores the struggle of both White and non-White ethnic groups in their historic and ongoing struggle for social justice." It currently has over 100 students registered which has allowed for three classes taught by Kevin Williams. (I hope to do a story on this course in the coming weeks).

The theme of this research and title of the presentation was "Growing Up Biracial in Davis." One of the themes that they discussed with an author was "How would children feel if they had no role models and if none of the protagonists could they relate to?" This is the dilemma facing biracial students who at times feel that they belong in several groups but at the same time belong in no groups.

The presentation began with survey data, many of which had just been presented to the Davis Joint Unified School Board by the Achievement Gap Task Force. The racial breakdown of DHS students shows that just under two-thirds of the students are white (63.4 percent), which marks a somewhat sharp decrease from six years ago when nearly 70 percent were white. Latino students grew from 10 to 12 percent and Asians from 15.7 to 19.3 percent. Africans stayed fairly steady with a small increase to 4 percent.

An examination of teacher race and ethnicity shows that there was very little change in the racial composition of teachers over the last six years. White teachers comprise 85 percent of the certificated faculty. There are just four African American teachers this year out of 464 teachers district-wide and none of them are at DHS.

In addition to underrepresentation of teachers, there was a considerable racial gap among DHS Graduates. Over 80% of White and Asians students met UC/CSU requirements while just 51 percent of African Americans and 45.7 percent of Latinos did. That disparity is very pronounced in math where 62.5 percent of Asians and 44 percent of whites were enrolled in advanced math course. That number falls to 22 percent for African Americans and 15 for Latinos.

GATE enrollment showed a similar disparity. According to their research,
"Key finding here is that there have been increases, albeit small, in the proportion of students who were of African American, Latino, and Native American descent enrolled in the district’s GATE program. Disturbingly, these proportions are not close, even with re-screening, to the proportions of White and Asian students enrolled in the district’s GATE program."
On the flip side, minorities were more than twice as likely as Whites and Asians to receive Special Education Services.
"African American, Latino and Native American students are 2 times as likely as Whites and 3 times as likely as Asians to receive Special Education services. This phenomenon is consistent with national trends in racially unequal assignment to Special Education. There were small increases in the proportion of Black, Latino, and Native American students receiving special education services."
The suspension data show a large and demonstrable disparity as well. For 2005-06, 1 in 30 White students and 1 in 80 Asian students were suspended. Compare that with 1 in 8 African American and 1 in 12 Latino students.
"The data are consistent with the well-documented and persistent national and statewide finding that African Americans and Latinos receive more harsh sentences for their criminal convictions than Whites. In an article in Time Magazine (May 27,2002) entitled, “Learning While Black,” a research study in Indiana was reported, with the original paper having been published in the December issue of The Urban Review. "
They also looked at in-house suspension (as opposed to at-home suspensions). District-wide for this year, 1 in 20 White students, 1in 5 African American students, 1 in 7 Latino students, 1 in 50 Asian students, and 1 in 30 Native American students served In-House Suspensions.
"In-House suspension data are not usually collected and are not federally-mandated to be reported. Interestingly, these rates are more racially unequal than traditional at-home suspension data."
That was the first part of their findings. The second part is a focus group study that interviewed 10 biracial students in three groups. Here they explored the research question: "What is the experience of growing up biracial in Davis, and is there anything that parents, teachers and/or peers can do to make it more positive?" They present three sets of findings. First themes common across all three groups. Second, themes distinct to each group. And finally advice for parents, teachers, and peers.

The Latino participants really liked Davis as a place to grow up biracial. As one student in focus group said:
"We are fortunate to live in Davis because everyone’s very open-minded and I think people are willing to embrace your culture if you tell them about it..."
On the other hand, they also found, that it was more challenging growing up biracial in Davis than in other more racially diverse cities.
"Yeah, it is different in different cities. It’s partly because we go to a city that has a population of maybe like one Black person. Then they really do look at you weird, and they’re like, “What are you doing here?” And then they do not know like what you’re wearing and then like…no clue. And like, they’re totally against Black people. And they actually think that Black people have like a way of living differently from everyone else. So, it’s different in different cities. It matters how many biracial people there are and how many Blacks and how many whites there are there."
They also expressed difficulty at times with having multiple identities.
“Yeah, they’ll criticize you. “Hey, why are…I thought you were Black. Why don’t you…why are you dressing White?” Like. And then you feel out of place. And then if you dress Black and you’re in a big group of White people, they’re like, “Oh, look at this ghetto fool walking up over here.”
Moreover that treatment differed based on their social group. They found their black friends were less accepting of them being biracial but whites were uncomfortable with the racial identity at all and thus very hesitant to talk about it out of fear of offending.
"I have White friends they always seem like really careful like anytime they ever mention somebody who’s Black. They’re always really careful to try and not offend you. So sometimes that gets kind of too annoying. It’s like, come on, calm down, I won’t be that offended if you just express your opinions. "
The students also present advice to teachers, students, and their parents. A couple of the key recommendations to teachers included not prejudging a student's ability and motivation to learn based on their identity.

Another key was that they all wanted more teachers of color. This has been a persistent theme in all of these studies. But it is good to hear it from a student's perspective in addition to an educator. Remember also the early theme about role models and the lack thereof.
"Yeah, it’s kind of disappointing. You know. I’m pretty sure that they can teach just . as good and they might have different approaches to teaching. The school might learn something new. Like if there’s noone that can teach this class or they’re just not given that chance. Cause I just wanna know that. Probably won’t ever find out, but I just kinda wanna know. "
A key theme in the advice to both parents and teachers was to teach the children about both sides of their heritage and to be direct about it.

Like all good research they concluded with a summary and also limitations of their work. Anytime one does research, it is very important to understand the limitations of the work. First, they would have liked to have had more students in the focus groups because they acknowledge that they did not capture the entire spectrum of experiences and perspectives of their biracial students in Davis. Second, while focus groups help to generate ideas, they do not help to quantify their prevalence. And finally, they wanted more time to analyze and think about the data.

Overall they suggest:
"We can say that there is a distinct experience, sometimes positive, sometimes more challenging, to growing up biracial in Davis.

Young people in Davis are some of the best experts on their experiences, and it benefits all of us in the community to take their ideas seriously."

Following the presentation there was a lengthy question and answer period. There were more than 100 people in attendance, including four of the five school board members: Keltie Jones, Gina Daleiden, Tim Taylor, and Sheila Allen. Also Davis City Councilmember Lamar Heystek and Yolo County Supervisor Mariko Yamada.

The concerns about the lack of diverse faculty were of paramount concern this part of the pointed criticism expressed by both the public and some of the students.

As one student put it:
"This has been about the third or fourth time its been brought to their attention [lack of minority teachers at DHS], if that doesn't work, I don't know what will."
According to Jann Murray-Garcia it is in part a public relations problem.
"Davis has been known as the Mississippi of the west, and that's not being fair to Mississippi."
Civil Rights leader and Reverend Timothy Malone said pointedly and passionately:
"We're told all the time they can't find an African American teacher--they are not looking hard enough!"
Longtime Community Activist Tansey Thomas asked point blank:
"Why would an African American want to teach here?"
Finally school board member Tim Taylor, himself African American said:
"I refuse to look at the glass as half-empty, I choose to look at it as half full... I'd like to fill it up the rest of the way to the top, however."
His response drew some angry rebukes. Many of the longtime members of the audience believe that the situation has actually gotten worse and not better.

The passion of the audience reflects the longevity of this issue. As my wife, Cecilia, mentioned on the way home last night, it was just amazing to her that this is even an issue, that we are in 2007 and we do not have an African-American teacher at Davis High School.

In all, it was a strong and passionate presentation and reflected well on the strength of the students and their abilities. I understand fully that the school board is taking steps to address these issues, but this community has seen attempts in the past and seen good suggestions that were simply not implemented. As we suggested previously, reports making many of the same suggestions have sat on the shelves collecting dust. I think this community wants action rather than rhetoric and I think that above all else is what drew some of the ire in the direction of Tim Taylor.

However one point needs to be driven home--the great work of these very talented, bright and articulate young students and the direction that they got from Dr. Jann Murray-Garcia.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting