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Jerome Torres is the former senior policy analyst for the San Diego Unified school board. He is a consultant for San Diegans 4 Great Schools, which is campaigning for a makeover in how the school board is chosen. Torres is the first in a series of guest bloggers I’m hosting at Schooled this week to talk about the achievement gap for Latino students in San Diego; check back tomorrow and later this week for more perspectives. These are his views, not mine or those of voiceofsandiego.org. Comments? Questions? You can contact Jerome at jotorres22@msn.com or just post a comment on the blog.

The continuing failure of San Diego Unified School District to address the needs of its largest and growing population is growing into a crisis.

Today, Latino students comprise 46 percent of the total student population — 61,000 strong. Addressing the prevailing academic achievement gap between Latino students and their white counterparts has evolved from a moral imperative to an economic one. We are literally risking the future viability of the greater San Diego region if we don’t begin facing our changing demographics.

Although 51 percent of all Latino students currently are classified as English Language Learners, the school district still has not effectively educated them to become proficient in English in order to be academically successful. The result: Despite modest gains over the past 10 years, in 2010, 58 percent of all Latino students do not perform at grade level in English; 49 percent do not perform at grade level in math. In 2009, Latino students had nearly two-and-a-half times the drop-out rate for white students.

The good news is that most English-proficient Latino students do, in fact, perform above grade level in both subject matters. But they are a minority.

One may conclude by these tragic statistics that the problem is the child. They would be wrong. The problem is the system and the inequities that exist within it that preclude any attempt to close the academic achievement gap.

In 1967, a class-action lawsuit challenged the treatment of students in San Diego’s low-performing inner city schools, and the court found that 23 schools were racially isolated and ordered the school district to integrate them and address the academic achievement gap that prevailed at these schools. Yet, 33 years later, 15 of the original 23 schools are still racially isolated and underperforming.

Education experts have long understood the connection between experienced teachers and student performance. But teachers in San Diego’s worst performing schools have significantly fewer years of experience than their counterparts in the school district’s best-performing schools.

In 2010, San Diego’s worst performing schools had 46 percent of all first- and second-year teachers, compared to just 20 percent in the best performing schools. This is a pattern that has persisted for decades. Compounding this problem is the continuing under-representation of Latinos as classroom teachers and school administrators.

Today, we have a chance to turn this situation around by reforming the governance of San Diego Unified. The Accountability and Student Performance Initiative would make the school board more accountable for closing the Latino achievement gap.

The initiative would require the district to develop plans to improve student achievement in each school, from top-performing schools on down, and require yearly reports to the public, mayor and City Council on progress toward those goals.

Also, the initiative would implement district-only elections, rather than at-large elections of board members, making them directly accountable to parents and concerned residents to make sure they’re getting a fair share of the experienced teachers to help turn under-performing schools around.

And finally, the reform measure would expand the board to include four appointed board members with experience in the areas of education, finance, public administration or public service. These board members wouldn’t have to depend on campaign contributions from the unions that have had a stranglehold on board elections in recent years, shifting the board’s focus from adult political agendas to what’s best for our children.

It’s past time for the Latino community to demand more from the school district and its leaders.

We owe it to the future of our city to put kids first.

— JEROME TORRES

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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