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Hearings Promote Education as a Civil Right

New America Media, News Report, Annette Fuentes Posted: Nov 16, 2008

Editors Note: Education is a civil rights issue and the San Francisco school district is trying to close the achievement gap, reports New America editor Annette Fuentes.

Calling education the "greatest civil rights issue of our time," San Francisco Schools Superintendent Carlos Garcia addressed a hearing on public school reform Thursday evening that focused on a persistent student achievement gap and strategies to narrow it.

The San Francisco Human Rights Commission called the hearing to support the school district's new strategic five-year plan to increase student performance, which uses a "balanced scorecard" of data as one tool to achieve equity in student outcomes.

"We're using the tools of industry and business," said deputy superintendent of instruction Tony Smith. "We will keep our word. We will provide the services we say we can provide." Snow said the district would soon make data on student achievement and other measures publicly available through its website in an "easy to use platform."

The hearings, chaired by Commissioner Sandy Suhcot, began with a discussion of the historical and legal precedents for defining education as a human right. UC Berkeley lecturer Rita Maran recounted how Eleanor Roosevelt, as the first chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, in 1948 surveyed other nations about their ideas of basic rights. "Across the board, it is considered a right," Maran said.

John Affeldt, managing attorney at Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm, detailed how California's courts and constitution established a free, public education as a fundamental right and how the definition of education has evolved over the years.

"It is not enough to provide a student with a seat in a school," Affeldt said. Today, students must graduate with sufficient skills in a range of areas, he said, including oral and written communication, political, social and economic understanding and academic or vocational training, in order to be citizens engaged in the democratic process.

Ritu Khanna, research director for the district, described the parameters of the problem San Francisco's schools face. The district has simultaneously the highest test scores and the lowest of any district in California, producing the greatest so-called achievement gap. It also has a persistently high drop-out rate, one that Khanna has tracked over her 16 years in the district.

"We tracked the ninth grade cohort for four years to see who graduates," she said. "What we found is that 60 percent graduate in San Francisco. We did this for a whole decade, and the same pattern was observed for every single year."

The second significant trend, Khanna explained, is the huge differential for African-American and Latino students, who graduate at half the rate of Asian and white students and also attain lower academic achievement measures. "On all California standardized tests, as well as the exit exam and behavioral measures, you see there is a gap," Khanna said.

One assessment she described, though, was student's rating their schools through a "satisfaction survey" the district administers at each school. For every level schoolelementary, middle and high schoolstudents gave consistently low ratings to this statement: "people who are different from me respect me."

Lisa Gray-GarciaRespect and dignity in school are important to academic success, too, said Lisa Gray-Garcia, of Justice Matters, a nonprofit educational advocacy group. She spoke about the need to create policy that takes into account the different cultural and value systems of children from impoverished families.

"It's important that we look through a different lens about what education is and can be for students of color living in poverty," Gray-Garcia said. "Policy based on a narrow definition of success doesn't center on social justice values, only on test scores." She urged the commissioners and district officials to use "alternative measures" and not just high-stakes testing in assessing student achievement.

After a parade of speakers, many offering dry statistics and analysis, Deonna Frierson, 17, a member of San Francisco's Youth Commission, stepped to the podium and announced that she would "finally bring the voice of youth" to the hearings.

Deonna FriersonIn testimony that was personal and heartfelt, the senior at Lincoln High School identified various issues of concern to low-achieving students, including the challenges in alternative schools and the pre-college courses required of graduates, referred to as A through G. But her voice broke as she told the commissioners that she was one of the students at risk of failure. "It's very hard. I am African American and I am at the bottom of that chart," Frierson said. "It hurts a little. But I have completed my A through G courses." She said she wanted to see more people "advocating for youth needs."

The commission plans to issue a report based on the hearings offering recommendations to the school district.

Photo credit: Anu Menon/San Francisco Human Rights Commission.

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