Alejandra is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who speak little English and hold down jobs cleaning houses and working in a hotel. Last year, she graduated from a high school in Santa Barbara, Calif., where the student population is roughly half poor Latino and half affluent white.
Their worlds rarely intersect, with most white students taking high-level courses and most Latinos enrolled in the general-ed classes. But during her high school years, Alejandra was the exception.
She was the only Latino student with immigrant parents enrolled in a college-level program known as International Baccalaureate studies. Many of the fellow students came from the Santa Barbara County community of Montecito, one of the wealthiest enclaves in the nation (Oprah Winfrey has a home there). It was often an uncomfortable experience.
Alejandra finished high school with a 3.3 GPA — no small feat given her background and the rigorous program from which she graduated.
Nonetheless, when it came time to talk to her guidance counselor about future plans, the counselor dissuaded Alejandra from pursuing her dream to attend a four-year university. The counselor instead advised her to go to the local community college. Alejandra complied, and today is a student at Santa Barbara City College.
The experience, she said, filled her with self-doubt.
"I thought, maybe I'm not as good as I think I am," she told Miller-McCune.com.
Battling Subtle Messages
Though racism in the public education system no longer takes the overt form of segregated schools, white students spitting on black students with impunity or National Guardsmen with rifles blocking the entrance to a school, several nonprofit organizations around the country focusing on racial justice in public schools say it's still ubiquitous.
Although the counselor no doubt had Alejandra's best interests in mind, the decision to steer her away from a four-year university was a classic example of unintentional racism, said Jarrod Schwartz, executive director of Just Communities Central Coast, a nonprofit based in Santa Barbara and dedicated to dismantling institutional racism in schools. (The group was founded in 2001 as The National Conference for Community and Justice of California's Central Coast, which in turn had its roots in the venerable National Conference of Christians and Jews.)
"Most of the racism in schools today is not born out of intense hate and does not come from this place of wanting the worst for students of color," he said. "It's subtle."
The organization spends much of its time informing educators about the everyday red flags that may be invisible to them, but glaringly obvious to many minority students and teachers of color.
A well-meaning high school counselor, for instance, may learn the names of all her white students, but barely any of her Latino pupils. A white teacher may call on students of color only for the easy questions. A teacher may embarrass a student of Korean descent by assuming the student knows how to pronounce a word in Vietnamese.
In May 2000, on the 40th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education — the landmark case that ruled segregated schools unconstitutional — the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the state of California that brought the essence of institutionalized racism into sharp focus. Filed on behalf of 100 students in San Francisco, the case was named after Eliezer Williams, then a seventh-grader at Luther Burbank Middle School in San Francisco.
At Williams' school, the textbooks were so scarce, students could not take them home; they were so old they still did not recognize the collapse of the Soviet Union. At certain times during the school day, there were no bathrooms; attorneys said students had urinated or defecated on themselves for lack of a restroom. The school was infested with vermin.
The suit argued that the state was failing to provide thousands of California students with the basic necessities for a decent education. Most of the students in question were poor minorities. In 2004, the case was settled, with the state setting aside $138 million for improving the textbooks and facilities of underserved student populations across California.
In a paper, Terry Keleher and Tammy Johnson of the Applied Research Center — a racial justice think tank — argued that the Williams case shows that institutionalized racism is alive and well in the 21st century.
"Institutional racism is frequently subtle, unintentional and invisible, but always potent," they wrote. "Often, institutional racism involves complex and cumulative factors; for example, when many students of color, year after year, do not have access to fully credentialed teachers, high-quality curriculum materials and advanced courses."
Just Communities operates under the premise that unintentional racism is a key contributor to the "achievement gap," in which the test scores of some ethnic groups — usually Latino and African-American students — are consistently below those of their white and Asian peers.
For three years, Just Communities has held annual seminars for educators primarily from the Santa Barbara School District. It also partners with California Conference for Equality and Justice to give seminars in the Long Beach and San Diego areas. The goal is to make headway in eliminating the stubborn achievement gap.
The organization asserts that the achievement gap cannot be adequately addressed until educators recognize the system's built-in tendency to make minority students feel unintelligent, despised or marginalized.
The weeklong seminars — which are open to parents — can be tearful events, as teachers and administrators come to grips with their own racial issues, or recall their past lives as students, recounting to their peers what it was like to attend schools in an atmosphere of inequity.
Success in St. Louis
Thus far, Schwartz said, it's too early to quantify the organization's progress in Santa Barbara, as it generally takes about five years to collect meaningful statistics. But Just Communities grew out of a program in the St. Louis metro area that is beginning to see some quantifiable results.
Called "Leadership and Racism: Closing the Achievement Gap," the project has been in place for eight years.
Phil Hunsberger, one of the organization's four principal consultants, provided Miller-McCune.com with one example of measurable success, though he was careful to add that the improvements may or may not be the direct result of the training.
At Alton Middle School in Alton, Ill., which has been in the program for four years, the reading scores of white sixth-graders improved by 7.5 percent from 2007 to 2008, and the scores of black sixth-graders rose by 20.9 percent.
"The school's ambition is to diminish the achievement gap while challenging all students," Hunsberger wrote in an e-mail.
Hunsberger said much of his work involves helping educators understand the "architecture" of oppression, in which a dominant group sustains power by targeting a subordinate group, often unconsciously.
"I don't call people racist — that is too confrontational and offers no new insights," he said. "I do suggest that we must all understand how we participate in racism — the architecture."
Meanwhile, in Santa Barbara, when it comes to closing the gap, there's a long way to go. A recent report shows that the gulf in scores in math between white high school students, whose proficiency rate hovers around 70 percent, and Latino students, whose proficiency rate is more like 30 percent, hasn't really changed since 2003.
Still, the Just Communities program appears to be making inroads on setting higher expectations for minority students. The students, in turn, are meeting them.
At La Colina Junior High in Santa Barbara, about a third of the students are Latino. Two years ago, the principal — after attending the Just Communities seminar — noticed that almost no Latino students were taking advanced courses. The principal recruited promising Latino students for the classes, bringing their enrollment more in line with the demographic makeup of the school. Now, Schwartz said, almost all of the Latino students in those classes are earning A's and B's.
Schwartz is hoping that counselors, too, will begin to reassess their assumptions.
He said Alejandra's experience — in which she was steered to community college despite making high marks — is all too common. Usually, he said, the counselors' intentions are good: They assume that sending a Latino student to college instead of a trade school would be setting him or her up for failure. But he said that sort of protection does them no favors.
"Many students of color — Latino and African Americans — have grown up all their lives not being pushed to go to college, or they grow up seeing people who look like them in trades or other positions that don't require college," he said. "And so if they don't have that counselor pushing them, it's easy to say, 'This is the path that's available to me.'"
In addition to holding seminars for teachers, Just Communities hosts a kind of social-justice summer camp for high school students. Called Community Leadership Institute, it encourages students to view the presumptions of their teachers and administrators with a critical eye.
One student who attended the leadership sessions was Tessa, a senior at a high school in Santa Barbara. A white student, Tessa said that after having her eyes opened at the camp, "it's really hard to close them."
Tessa told of a recent run-in with her principal. She and a couple other white girls were in the hallways when they should have been in class, and one of them was talking on her cell phone, even though the school enforces a strict ban on cell phone use during the school day. When the principal spotted them, he struck an avuncular tone, saying just because the girls had 4.0 grade point averages didn't mean they shouldn't be in class.
Then, she said, the principal saw a pair of Latino boys roaming the halls, and snapped at them, ordering them back to class.
"The thing is, they probably have higher GPAs than me," she said.
The Three Rs
In its seminars with educators, Just Communities staff members tell teachers and administrators that the key to improving relations with — and therefore the performance of — students of color is to learn the organization's three R's: relationships, relevance and rigor.
Perhaps the best way to understand the meaning of these abstract words is to consider the practices of a particular inner-city teacher whom Schwartz considers a marvel.
His name is Kadhir Raja, a 26-year-old teacher in the most crime-ridden neighborhood of Sacramento.
Raja's school, Grant Union High, is among the top 10 in the state for football, producing several NFL draft picks like as Donté Stallworth, a standout wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns.
But it is among the state's most dismal performers in academics. Only about 60 percent of the students who start school at Grant graduate, Raja said. In a 1-to-10 ranking system based on test scores, the school most recently received a one, meaning it fares among the bottom 10 percent across the state.
In California, the biggest predictor of whether a student will graduate is how he or she performs in Algebra I. At Grant Union High, the students performed abysmally — until Raja started teaching the class two years ago.
By the end of the first semester this year, about 90 of Raja's 110 sophomores were on track to earn an A or B. Raja insists this isn't grade inflation: Even though the tests are multiple choice, students must show their work. If they don't, he marks the answer wrong, even if they got it right.
Regarding the first R — for relationships — Raja scores an A-plus, Schwartz said.
This is not because he simply engages in small talk with them. Rather, Raja puts himself in a position to punish and reward. At the beginning of the quarter, he immediately adds the numbers of their guardians to his cell phone. These are the people the students genuinely fear — not the administrators.
Raja teaches class with his phone at the ready. If a student misbehaves or under-performs, Raja makes a point of going out into the hallway on the spot to call the student's parent (or grandparent, as is often the case). On the flip side, if a student shows progress, Raja does the same, sometimes in front of the whole class.
"There has to be some love, there has to be some fear," he told Miller-McCune.com. "It's gotta be constant reinforcement, to the point where it just becomes second nature. Where the kid is like, 'Man I like doing good.'"
Regarding the second R, Raja makes the curriculum culturally "relevant" by teaching math in a language his students can relate to.
Take this simple algebraic equation: X - 2 = 4.
To explain the concept, Raja knows he needs to grab their attention. The X, he says, is a dog that doesn't like numbers in his neighborhood. The numbers in the dog's neighborhood thus must cross the bridge — the equal sign — but to do so must change their sign, in this case from a negative to a positive. X = 6.
Finally, Raja — who has not experienced a Just Communities seminar — demonstrates "rigor" not only by demanding a lot of his students, but also of himself.
"If the student fails, the teacher fails," said Raja, whose parents emigrated from Ethiopia and raised him in Chicago. "If a teacher fails 50 percent of his class, that's like a doctor that is killing 50 percent of his patients."
Raja, who is working toward his doctorate in urban education at California State University, Sacramento, is starting to attract national attention. Later this year, he'll bring several students to Washington, D.C., where he will speak to the National Council of Teaching Math.
In addition to exhibiting an uncanny mastery of Schwartz's "three R's," Raja's success also underscores the power of good teaching. In a December New Yorker article, Stanford economist Eric Hanushek was quoted as saying students of a very good teacher learn about a year-and-a-half's worth of material in one year, while students of a very bad teacher learn just half a year's worth.
Still, finding inspiring teachers is a major challenge, and some researchers say it is more fruitful for school districts to institutionalize the process of cultivating teacher excellence, such as through mentorship programs for teachers.
In any case, many of Raja's students failed algebra for three consecutive years before getting to his class, where they earned an A. Because Raja is a new teacher, it's still too early to tell whether this will be a gateway to college for some of those students. But Raja has high hopes.
"They're just killing it," he said. "It's like, 'Oh my gosh, for the first time in my life I'm actually smart. ... Their self-esteem goes up. Their confidence goes up. They do better in other classes, because they are smart now."