Committee explores ways to better address African American student issues 

click to enlarge School board President Maurice Goodman, right, seen here speaking with a parent, was surprised at the social media backlash to an African American student advisory group. - BRENDAN P. BARTHOLOMEW/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Brendan P. Bartholomew/special to the s.f. examiner
  • School board President Maurice Goodman, right, seen here speaking with a parent, was surprised at the social media backlash to an African American student advisory group.

When the South San Francisco Unified School District recently announced the formation of its African American Parent Advisory committee, school board President Maurice Goodman was surprised by the negative reaction on social media.

Dozens of Facebook commenters from South San Francisco blasted the announcement, claiming it is divisive to have an educational committee focusing solely on African American issues.

Goodman said he was dismayed that the commenters were apparently unaware that the district had previously launched similar committees for parents of Hispanic and Asian Pacific Islander students.

He noted that the new committee would not just concern African American parents, because many of the district's students who identify as African American come from multi-ethnic or bi-racial families. Students of all ethnicities could benefit from the education improvements the committee might seek, the board president stressed.

The committee's first meeting on Wednesday was led by El Camino High School interim Principal Linda McDaniel, who explained that the need for such a group became apparent when district data revealed "significant disproportionality" in the numbers of African American students who had been placed in special education classes or subjected to disciplinary measures.

While the word "racism" was not specifically mentioned at the meeting, Dr. Mildred Browne, a consultant working with the district, acknowledged that implicit racial bias can contribute to African American students being wrongly placed in special education classes or singled out for harsher punishments than other students.

Parent Kim Tolbert said the meeting should not just focus on special education issues. She explained that her daughter is a high-achieving student, yet still feels she has experienced some racial bias in her school.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, just 2.6 percent of South San Francisco residents are African American.

One parent who expressed feelings of isolation was Kym Murray-Atkins, who said her childhood experience attending schools in East San Jose seemed to be more welcoming than what her son has experienced in South San Francisco. "Sometimes I feel very alone here," Murray-Atkins noted.

The state's new Common Core math standards were among other topics discussed at the meeting, and parent Quentin York said he is glad his child's school, Sunshine Gardens Elementary, had worked with African American parents to not only help them understand the new math requirements, but to also aid them in teaching critical thinking skills to their children.

Another school praised by some parents at the meeting for how it addresses African American student needs was Monte Verde Elementary. McDaniels, however, emphasized the need for district-wide policies that would ensure the same level of cultural competency and engagement at every school.

"It shouldn't come down to whether there's a superstar teacher at Monte Verde," McDaniels noted.

In addition to breaking up into small focus groups and answering a district survey about their experiences with South San Francisco schools, the parents and educators in attendance brainstormed about when and how the next committee meeting should be organized, and also discussed the possibility of launching an online forum so committee members could stay in touch and continue to build a sense of community.

Along with serving South San Francisco, the school district also serves portions of Daly City and San Bruno, and contains three high schools, three middle schools, nine elementary schools, one continuation high school, and one adult education facility.

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