Leo, Jessica, Rosa, Francisco the list goes on and on. In fact, almost all of the friends Yadira Arzaba started West High with four years ago have long since dropped out. As for Yadira herself, who moved to Utah from Mexico when she was 7, this year she's taking physics.
Yadira's is the story we like to hear, but her failing friends represent the more accurate and troubling statistic: Not only are dropout rates among ethnic minority students higher compared to their white counterparts, but minorities also have lower standardized test scores, lower grades and lower rates of participation in rigorous courses such as advanced placement.
It's a national disparity that has been dubbed the "achievement gap." And on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that outlawed segregation in America's public schools, some people argue that the gap is proof that not enough has changed.
In 1954, segregation was a black and white issue, literally and otherwise. These days, inequality may be more subtle and may include other "students of color," as well as students whose lives are complicated by poverty.Opening literal doors was the crux of Brown v. Board. What the past 50 years have have proved, however, is that an "equal education" isn't just about minorities and whites being in the same building.
Look at the numbers, says William Smith.Smith, who is African-American, is a associate director at the Center for the Study of Race and Diversity in Higher Education at the University of Utah. He is also the father of a high school senior in the Salt Lake City School District, and there are statistics about Utah schools that don't sit well with him:
- Dropout rates for Utah ethnic minority students outpace those for whites. In 2002, a third of all American Indians and slightly more than a third of all Hispanics and African-Americans failed to graduate, compared to 11.6 percent of white students.
- Results of Utah's core curriculum tests for 2003 measure what percentage of students are "proficient" in subjects like language arts and math. While 82 percent of whites scored in that range on the language arts portion of the tests, only 53.1 percent of Hispanics, 60.9 percent of African-Americans, 63.5 percent of Pacific Islanders and 65.3 percent of low-income students did. National Assessment of Educational Progress tests show similar disparities.
- The state does not keep track of student GPAs by ethnicity, but a look at GPAs of Salt Lake City School District 10th graders in 2002 shows that the average math GPA for whites was 2.9, for Hispanics was 2.1 and African-Americans was 2.3.
- Of seniors taking AP tests in Utah in 2003, 0.2 percent were African-American. If blacks were equally represented, 0.5 percent of the AP tests more than double the current rate would be taken by blacks. Hispanics are similarly underrepresented: 2.8 percent of the tests were taken by Hispanics, but 5.2 percent of Utah high school seniors are Hispanic. Stated another way, 7.5 percent of African-American and 10.6 percent of Hispanic 12th-graders took AP exams, compared to 20 percent of white seniors.
"There are students in all groups who don't like education. But why is it a skewed curve for students of color?" Smith asks about the achievement gap. If you don't believe in "genetic racism," if you don't believe that certain races are inherently smarter, he says, then there has to be another explanation.
So what is it? Discrimination or language or laziness? Learning styles? Culture? Curriculum? Expectations? All of the above and more?As principal Bob Pliley of Escalante High says, "There are so many roots and entanglements."
Pliley is an outspoken man who is not afraid to take a hard look at himself and his profession. What bothers him, he says, is that students think only "bright" students can succeed in school. "Effort is a hell of a lot more important than talent or ability," he argues.
Yes, some students, whatever their color, aren't capable of rigorous academics, he says and then adds this kicker: "We principals and teachers and counselors are arrogant to think we can tell just who those students are.
"Maybe it's that we educators give (ethnic minorities) permission not to do well academically. And we don't give the Caucasians that kind of permission," suggests Pliley, who has also served as principal at East High in the Salt Lake City School District. "It's almost as if, with the white kids, I say, 'I'm not going to let you be lazy, I'm not going to let you not come to class.' " Sometimes, he says, he might say to a Hispanic girl or a Navajo boy, "You have a full plate, you have a lot to overcome," letting those difficulties serve as an excuse.
Expectations are one of the factors Freddie Cooper will look at as she embarks on an investigation of why fewer ethnic minorities than whites take AP classes. Cooper, an education specialist with the State Office of Education, is project director for a federally funded AP incentive program.
According to a U.S. Department of Education study, taking AP and other academically rigorous courses in high school not GPAs or scores on college entrance exams are the best predictors of college completion, especially for Latino and African-American students. And a 1998 report from the Council of The Great City Schools found that the achievement gap narrows when inner-city students take rigorous courses.
"What I want them to know," says Cooper about Utah's minority students, "is that some people in AP classes are naturally gifted but not all of them. I want them to know what is available to them and that they can prepare themselves to take AP."
Even in AP Spanish, the number of Hispanic students is fairly low. In the Salt Lake City School District, for example, only 14 Hispanic and Chicano students took the Spanish AP exams in 2003. Blandina Aguayo, a West High senior, says even though her "native speaker" Spanish class teacher encouraged students to go on to take AP Spanish, she was one of only four who did. "Some kids were afraid to take it because mostly white kids take AP," she says.
Most student's who have studied Spanish until at least the sixth grade in their native countries could pass AP Spanish, says Lloyda Kyremes, who teaches Spanish at Highland High. If these students are encouraged to take AP Spanish and pass the test, "they'll think, 'I'm smart in my language.' And then they have the encouragement to believe that 'I'm smart, period.' "
The state's AP incentive program will help train teachers and counselors to reach out more to minority students, says Cooper.
The push to excel has to start early, says Trevor Packer, a Utah native who is executive director of the national AP program. "It's not enough to just be offered AP classes in high school, he says, "if you haven't been given adequate building blocks." So, in Utah, the state's Cooper will focus on beefing up pre-AP courses at the junior high level.
Already, efforts are being made to go even farther back in the academic pipeline. At Salt Lake City's Glendale Middle School, for example, where in past years geometry wasn't offered because there weren't enough students who tested ready to take it, this problem has been solved by beefing up the math programs at feeder elementary schools.
Occasionally, unspoken biases emerge. Vickie Fisher, who teaches math at Glendale, says that a former student, a Vietnamese girl who in junior high audited math classes at the University of Utah, signed up for analytical geometry when she moved on to West High. "But just because she was from Glendale," says Fisher, "they put her in pre-algebra."
According to a study by Salt Lake City School District Assistant Superintendent Charles Hausman in 2001, minority students take more electives and fewer math, science and language arts courses than white students. (There has been no follow-up study, and the State Office of Education is only this year compiling state data on course-taking patterns, says spokesman Mark Peterson.)
Discrimination isn't just about intention, says the U.'s Smith, but about effect. A teacher or counselor might not have a racist intention, but the effects of his actions might be racist nonetheless. Smith points to evidence of what he calls "microaggression" racial slights and discouragement especially against black and Hispanic males. "No matter how hard they try, he says, "they don't get rewarded in the same ways their white peers do. "They lose hope in the agents of change," including teachers, he says.
West High counselor Marco Herrera says there is sometimes peer pressure to underachieve. Read this book, Herrera tells a reporter, handing her a copy of Beverly Daniel Tatum's "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?"
Tatum argues that minorities sometimes develop an "oppositional identity," because "doing well in school becomes identified as trying to be white. Being smart becomes the opposite of being cool." She notes that this is, ironically, a post-desegregation phenomenon. Like any generalization, this one may have more exceptions than rules. Certainly white students, too, often try not to look too smart. And students like Granite High's Sara Porter, an African-American junior who will be student body secretary next year, says her peers are proud of her academic success "as long as I have a good attitude and am not, I guess you could say, snotty."
But Michael Clara, former chairman of the Coalition of Minorities Advisory Committee of the Utah State Board of Education, says that recently he listened to several Hispanic boys in his Boy Scout troop chide a Scout who was reading while he waited for an activity to begin. "He wants to be white, so just leave him alone," said one of the boys.
Counselor Herrera himself grew up in California, where his Hispanic family, neighbors and schoolmates, he says, were often uncomfortable with his efforts to do well in school. "What makes you think you're better than anyone else?" they asked. "You almost have to turn your back on your community," he says.
He points to the couch in his office. Not long ago, he says, "I had an Hispanic mom sitting right here and she said, 'He studies too much.' " She was referring to her son, who was sitting beside her.
For some recent Mexican immigrant parents, who have come to the United States with little or no education themselves, who are working two or more jobs, who are simply trying to survive, keeping a teenager in school sometimes feels like a luxury they can't afford. Boys are sometimes encouraged to get a job instead. Girls are recruited to baby-sit younger siblings.One counselor at a Salt Lake City high school says occasionally she sees Hispanic students who have taken college entrance exams and applied for college "in secret," afraid to tell their parents.
On a spring afternoon, Erica Rojas sits in the library at Highland High. Nearby, some boys are checking out women in bikinis on the Internet, and at another table a group of boys appear to be having a burping contest.
Erica comes to the library to tutor refugee students after school. Then she goes home and studies. "I should have about four hours of homework," she says. "But I'm so picky, so it takes me five or 5 1/2 hours. But I like doing it, so it's OK."
Erica, whose family moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 12, had learned only thank you, good morning "and some bad words" by the time she started at Edison Elementary. Now she's a junior at Highland. She takes AP English and AP American history, plus honors physics, honors sociology, pre-calculus and Latin.
"You walk in and everybody is thinking, 'Yeah, right, she's going to make it in here?' " she says, recalling how she felt her first day of her AP English class.
"I don't feel like I fit in the American culture or the Hispanic culture," she says. "I'm in between."
Why has Erica succeeded where others have not? "I don't think I'm smarter," she says about some of her friends who don't see the point of getting good grades or enrolling in AP classes. "I just try my best. I just know I have to get a career."
Erica wasn't afraid to ask a counselor about AP classes and it is this willingness to ask for help that seems to be a common thread. "I like to talk a lot with the teachers," says Yadira Arzaba at West.
Finding an advocate is crucial for minority students, say teachers who have watched those students struggle to understand an education system that whites grow up learning about from parents or older siblings. "You have to have somebody who's in your camp," says Highland ESL teacher Sandra Horch, somebody who will alert them to opportunities. Many of her students, she says, "don't even know the questions to ask."
As for the teachers themselves, says Highland Spanish teacher Kyremes, "we need to create an atmosphere that is choice-friendly. That means I need to know my students better than I (currently) get to know them. You have to be acquainted with them enough to create trust in what you have to say."
Supportive parents are also essential. "My parents have never missed a parent-teacher conference," says Yadira. When she was in junior high, she says, "My dad would check up on me at school," even though she was bused across the valley from her home on the west side. "That's my daughter," said Yadira's father with obvious pride one day recently when a reporter called their home asking for her.
So, high on everybody's list in closing the achievement gap is getting minority parents more involved in programs ranging from Freddie Cooper's AP incentive all the way down to billboards encouraging parents to read 20 minutes a day with their preschoolers.
The efforts to close the achievement gap are wide and deep. They include before-school tutoring and after-school "homework clubs." They include No Child Left Behind, with its controversial "adequate yearly assessment." They include cultural sensitivity training programs like REACH, Respect for Ethnic and Cultural Heritage, where teachers learn about how different cultural backgrounds and different "learning styles" can affect whether a minority student is either excited by or turned off by school. They include the MESA program, which gives ethnic minorities and girls extra help in math and science. This year the program is being extended to sixth-graders in some schools.
At schools like West, counselors receive training in "the culture of poverty." At Club Heights Elementary in South Ogden, whose students are counted as the poorest and most mobile in the Weber District, a Title I grant helps the school offer smaller classes, a family resource center, and translators at parent-teacher conferences. Where many immigrant parents once seemed uncomfortable about coming to the school, says principal Cami Alexander, "at a 'family fun night' a few weeks ago, we were packed.' "
Sit in a pew some Sunday morning at Calvary Baptist Church and you'll see, too, what a caring community can offer. Black high school and college students stand before the congregation and are applauded for their good grades and scholarships.
Everybody has a responsibility, says CMAC's Clara. "You can't put it all on the shoulders of our teachers." As a bilingual resident of Salt Lake City's west side, he makes sure he talks to the parents in his neighborhood. "I tell them about tutoring after school. I say, 'Make him go.' "Comment on this story
And the even wider net includes public policy, argues a book published just last week. In "Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap," Richard Rothstein says that housing, jobs and even environmental toxins must all be addressed if we want to make things right.Fifty years after "Brown," that's the lesson we need to learn over and over: We're all in this together; the children who don't achieve affect us all.
Tomorrow: How "Brown" has colored the Utah teaching landscape.