Vianey Espinoza can still remember what a school official told her class when she began her freshman year at the Sunset district’s Abraham Lincoln High School.
Asking the assembled 14-year-olds to look around at their peers, he predicted that half of them would leave school without a diploma. And most of those dropouts would be black or Hispanic.
“You guys set yourself up for failure,” she recalls him saying.
In eighth grade, Espinoza had been a star student. But at Lincoln, she began to feel students like her were unwelcome.
“I was the only Latin in my physics class,” she said. “They were all Asian except for me and this one African-American guy. Me and him stuck together.”
Espinoza recalled clashing with teachers at Lincoln over what they saw as her bad attitude. Problems at home gave her reasons to avoid class, and after a schoolyard fight she was forced to leave Lincoln entirely.
“I let them get to me,” she said.
The would-be lawyer is now a senior at Downtown High School, a Potrero Hill continuation school for students who didn’t make it elsewhere. Nearly all her peers are black or Hispanic, and many have stories similar to hers.
In recent years, San Francisco Unified School District officials and local youth advocates have grown increasingly concerned by statistics showing that such students are expelled, suspended and disciplined more often than white and Asian classmates. And students subjected to those punishments are less likely to graduate and attend college.
“Race is absolutely a part of the equation, from how the teacher is expected to deal with the students to the resources that are available at the schools these students attend,” said Alize Asberry, an organizer with Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, which is pressuring the district to address racial disparities.
In March, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released data from 2009 that showed such disparities across the country. In San Francisco, black students represented less than 12 percent of enrollment, but more than 42 percent of suspensions. Hispanic students made up 22 percent of enrollment but 29 percent of suspensions. These students are also far less likely to take advanced classes, such as physics or chemistry, or to be enrolled in gifted and talented programs.
District officials say they are aware of the problem, and are moving away from traditional, punishment-based discipline. Their new model, called “restorative practices,” brings students together with teachers and peers to discuss the effects of their misbehavior on the school community and to uncover the emotions that underlie it.
That can include frank discussions of race, class and cultural misunderstanding.
“Relationships matter,” said Claudia Anderson, the district’s executive director for student support. “When students do not feel that connectedness, do not feel that the adults care about them, that’s when they start engaging in some of those behaviors.”
Anderson said there are fewer suspensions now than when the Department of Education collected the data in 2009, but racial disparities have not gone away.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction, but that doesn’t help the kids who’ve been with us for a decade and already feel marginalized,” she said.
Kyle Beckham, a black social studies teacher at Downtown High, believes the problems run deeper than officials acknowledge.
“You can’t have a district that’s majority minority when 90 percent of the teachers are Caucasian,” Beckham said.
“There’s a lot of ways that black and brown students act that aren’t consistent with what white, middle-class women have been socialized to see as appropriate.”
Beckham believes part of the solution may be helping black and Hispanic students change their perception of themselves — that while society might see them as troublemakers and future dropouts, they can have power over their own fates.
Toward that end, on Mondays during the spring semester, Beckham turned his class over to Asberry, the Coleman Advocates organizer, who gave lessons about the history of youth activism in San Francisco and how young people can use restorative practices to solve problems in their schools and communities.
The goal, Asberry said, was to encourage the students to attend college — an option some students had not previously considered.
Vahn Whitaker, 16, a junior from Hunters Point who fell behind at Thurgood Marshall High School and was encouraged to leave, said he had the sense that teachers were indifferent to his fate. While he’s happier at Downtown High, it makes him angry that not everyone has an equal shot at an education.
“They should have people that care about you in school,” he said. “Nobody wants to go to school with people who don’t care about you.”
In California, according to federal data from 2006, black students make up less than 8 percent of the population, but 18 percent of suspensions and 15 percent of expulsions. Several bills currently working their way through the state Legislature are designed to chip away at that disparity.
One bill, introduced by San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, would require schools to show that they tried other means of correcting a student’s behavior before resorting to suspension or expulsion. It also would protect students with special needs from being suspended or expelled.
“It provides an alternative to suspension, which just puts them out on the street, and they don’t come back,” Ammiano said. “You treat them as salvageable rather than throwing them away.”
Other pending legislation would require California’s Department of Education to track punishments by race and reduce the number of offenses that lead to mandatory expulsion.
Last month, the state Senate passed a bill introduced by President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) that would subject school districts with excessive levels of suspensions to state oversight and require them to use “positive behavioral interventions” rather than punishment.
In a statement, Steinberg said such alternative approaches to discipline can “hold students accountable while keeping them in school.”
“The disproportionate discipline meted out to students of color is disturbing and counterproductive,” he said. “When we suspend students from class and send them home, it’s basically an unsupervised school vacation, which doesn’t get to the root of the problem.”
— Amy Crawford