Alberto Ochoa remembers how, as a freshman at a Los Angeles public high school, the vice principal told his class that half of the students wouldn’t graduate.

Turns out, Ochoa said, “that’s exactly what happened.” Many of his classmates dropped out, some “survived public education” and made it out with a diploma, he said. A few, like Ochoa, went on to earn degrees.

But Ochoa, a professor emeritus who retired last spring after 37 years teaching graduate education courses at San Diego State University, didn’t need a doctorate to understand fancy words like “achievement gap” or socioeconomic disadvantage.

He understands them because he lived them. And he’s devoted his life’s work to helping parents and students facing the same elements.

Since Ochoa began teaching at SDSU in 1975, he has worked with more than 60 school districts in California, helping them plan curriculums and boost the language skills of students for whom English is a second language.

He remains active in the Parent Institute for Quality Education, an organization he co-founded to help parents advocate for their children’s education and create a college-going culture.

Ochoa and other educators, community agencies and community leaders meet with San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten on a monthly basis. Each month, they focus on a different education topic ranging from accessing the “A to G” curriculum — high school courses necessary for college — to parental engagement, to biliteracy education.

I sat down with Ochoa at a Starbucks just down the road from SDSU.

Ochoa told me a bit about his childhood in Mexico, and his family’s moved to Los Angeles when he was 7. He grappled to learn English along with class concepts — the same struggle roughly 34,000 English-language learners in San Diego Unified face today.

We also talked about what Ochoa called a modern, but infrequently discussed symptom of racial segregation in schools: “post and bid,” a process by which teachers who have the most seniority have first dibs on jobs at better-performing schools.

At Lincoln High, for example, a school that has faced severe teacher and student out-migration in recent years, the staff averaged about 12 years of service between them in 2011-2012 — lower than the district average of 15.1.

Lincoln’s Academic Performance Index, a composite score that reflects a school’s performance based on statewide assessments, was 617 — the lowest-scoring high school in the district that year.

Compare that to La Jolla High, where the average years of staff service was 19. La Jolla High had an API score of 849 that year, one of the five highest in the district.

Here’s the bulk of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

What’s one important piece of this conversation that you think needs more attention?

Expectations are a critical component of this conversation. And expectations are often calibrated to meet socioeconomic conditions.

I’ll give you this example. Years ago, my wife and I were looking for a school to enroll our son. We went from school to school, asking, “What are your expectations for a student to be successful?”

One school in Barrio Logan said, “Well by the third grade we’d expect students to be reading at the 22nd percentile.” Another school said, “We’d expect your son to read at the 36th percentile” and another, near University City and La Jolla, said they expected students to read at the 86th percentile.

This is the same school district, the same curriculum, but the expectations are drastically different.

And, by the way, I advise parents that if teachers tell you your student is doing well because he’s at the 36th percentile, you’ve got a real problem. You can’t measure success against other students if all students are struggling.

Expectations, then, are something parents and schools shape together. What’s something for principals and teachers to think about?

There’s a book by Richard Valencia about what he calls the “deficit theory,” which basically means we focus on what students are lacking instead of looking at their assets.

The central metaphor of the book is that on their first day of classes, all students come to school with a backpack. In the bag, students carry 25,000 hours of learning — this includes language, lived experiences and cultural lessons. Too often we see the contents of that bag as a deficit, and we ask students to leave it at the door.

This includes the label of “English-language learner,” which creates separation. It tells them they are wrong. When you ask a child to leave his or her background at the door, you humiliate the child. You’re asking students to displace their family culture and language, to hate who they are.

This is especially important in California, where the majority of students are non-white, but the majority of teachers come from a Euro-American background.

So we have a choice. We can respond to students with a deficit perspective, which basically means: “We’re going to fix you. The problem is not the school. The problem is you.” This often means that a school is only concerned with meeting the student’s legal rights to a basic education, but nothing more.

Or we can treat a child as an asset where we value and recognize the experience each child brings, and then build upon that. We promote bi-cognition, which would support language development in their first and second language while at the same time supporting their conceptual learning.

You talked a little about expectations, and how they vary from school to school. What are some possible reasons for the differences?

I went to one of the first high schools to be desegregated in L.A. I saw many of the tensions play out firsthand. But in many ways, schools are more segregated now than they were in the 1970s.

Segregation takes many forms. It could be a matter of where more experienced teachers are placed.

I’m talking about post and bid — teacher tenure is established after three years, after which point they can bid out and move to other schools.

Generally, the most teacher openings are at the most complex schools. I don’t call them the worst schools. They are the most ethnically and linguistically complex — requiring culturally proficient and experienced teachers.

The idea of using the most complex schools as training grounds for teachers is a recipe for failure.

Post and bid is a collective bargaining issue, and I’m generally supportive of unions. But I’ve never seen value in this.

It doesn’t taste well. It doesn’t smell well. And it’s not beneficial for kids.

I think we should establish an academy for teachers who are going to work in these schools. Where they [train] teachers in culturally relevant pedagogy instead of asking them to parachute in without knowing the background of where the kids in that school are coming from, or what they’re dealing with. This goes for principals, too.

In writing about the achievement gap, I’ve noticed that people are often passionate about what they assume are the roots of the disparities, and what we should do about them.

How can we frame the conversation around the racial disparities in a way that transcends the argument and helps us make progress?  

The first level of awareness is recognizing the problem. In this case, some students are failing, while others are succeeding. We give it a name: the achievement gap, the dropout rate, etc. But most often we do not consider the structure of the school system.

Next, comes blaming. Parents blame the teachers, teachers blame the parents or they blame principals, principals blame the superintendents, superintendents blame Sacramento. It goes on.

To a certain degree, we all do this. I do, too. It’s natural. When I notice myself doing it, I try to recognize it. When we blame somebody else, it means it’s not our problem. We’re not responsible for it.

How do we create a more transformative process that is responsive to all students? This is something that I internalize and wake up at night thinking about. This is what drives me to work with and through school communities to create democratic schooling practices.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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