Students raise their hands in Veronica Gonzalez’s kindergarten classroom at Sherman Elementary. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Latinos in California are at a turning point. In 2014, Latinos surpassed whites as the largest ethnic group in the state. More Latinos are stepping into, and running for, high-profile political positions.

Yet educational outcomes for Latino students across the state are alarmingly low. According to a new report from Education Trust-West, there’s not a single county in the state where the majority of Latino students scores proficient in math or English language arts on standardized tests.

The Learning Curve

“We see elected officials standing up for DACA students. We talk about California being a beacon on the hill for supporting Latino rights. But given the data, Latino students continue to languish on the sidelines in our state. The rhetoric does not match the reality,” said Ryan Smith, executive director of Ed Trust-West.

The report unpacks some of the reasons for the disparities, like lack of access to preschool programs and college-prep coursework. Latinos in California also attend the nation’s most segregated schools, where students are isolated by race, class and language. That also means they’re more likely to get stuck with a school district’s least effective teachers.

It’s less surprising, then, that Latino students in California schools fare worse than they do in other states.

“In a nationwide assessment of fourth grade reading, California’s Latino students ranked fourth from the bottom; in eighth grade, they slid to next-to-last place. These results are unacceptable,” reads the report.

Accompanying the report is an interactive map that gives a county-by-county breakdown of how test scores for Latino students stack up to those of their white peers. The map, based on the most recent scores on standardized tests, shows a 27 percentage-point difference between Latino and white students in San Diego County.

It’s not the smallest achievement gap in the state, but it’s not the worst, either. That distinction belongs to San Francisco County, which also has the most disparate outcomes for black students, Smith said.

The report points out that across the state, achievement gaps have been shrinking in recent years, and it also includes some school districts seeing promising results.

Between 2006 and 2015, the number of Latino students earning associates or bachelor’s degrees doubled. Still, during most of that same time period, the number of Latino adults with college degrees ticked up only 1 percentage point.

In other words, Smith said, the gaps are closing – but not nearly fast enough.

“We need to support our students with a sense of urgency. Given the current trajectory, we wouldn’t close the gap in math for Latino students until the year 2080. For black students, we wouldn’t close it until 2097. And for English-learners, not until the year 2291,” Smith said.

This matters, not just for the students themselves, but for the future of the state’s economy.

Already, Latinos make up one in three workers in the state’s labor force, and that proportion is only expected to climb as young Latinos age into the workforce.

“We need to be looking at the achievement gap in terms of an opportunity gap. Achievement gaps are an indictment on the system. But the opportunity gap refers to the supports Latino students are lacking, like college-prep courses or access to effective teachers,” Smith said.

“These come down to decisions that we make within systems and we need to take a look in the mirror and ask what are we doing. This is a matter of racial justice.”

The Return of Bilingual Education

Bilingual education is ready for a comeback in California.

Last November, Californians passed Prop. 58, a ballot initiative that did away with restrictions on bilingual programs. School districts are realizing bilingual education is something parents want for their children. Now, as school districts consider how they can open more dual-language programs to meet demand, they have a solid model to look to in Chula Vista Elementary School District.

About 18 years ago, just as the state was turning away from bilingual education, Chula Vista Elementary School District leaned into it. That year, the district opened its first English-Spanish dual immersion charter school, Chula Vista Learning Community Charter School, or CVLCC.

It’s not the catchiest name for a school, but don’t let that fool you. For its track record, school leaders’ ability to authentically engage parents and the continuity it offers students, this very well could be the strongest dual-language immersion program in the region, if not the state.

Amaya Garcia, a pal of mine from New America, published a report last week that showcases CVLCC and its recipe for success. One element that sets it apart is its ties to San Diego State, which has the only standalone bilingual teacher preparation program in the state.

Those ties help CVLCC succeed where other schools and districts struggle: finding quality bilingual teachers. The school’s superintendent Francisco Escobedo said 90 percent of the teachers it hires for its dual-language program come from SDSU.

It’s not a contest (it is), but Chula Vista Elementary School District may have the most robust dual-language program offerings in the county. Twenty-one of the district’s 48 schools offer dual-language programs. And not just that, but students across ethnicities share in schools’ educational success. As you can see from an VOSD’s interactive map on schools in San Diego County, an outsize number of schools in the district are considered educationally equitable in terms of shared success.

Throwing Parents Under the Bus for Transportation Fees

Derek Finley’s son rode the bus to Mission Bay High. In 2011, Finley separated from his wife and was forced to sell his house at a loss to keep the bank from foreclosing on it. He said that left him and his son technically homeless. They surfed friends’ couches for a time.

Unfortunately for Finley, 2011 was also the year San Diego Unified started sending parents to a collections agency if they fell behind in paying for bus fees. (Yes, California school districts can charge for kids to ride school buses. No, it’s not common to send parents to collections.)

Finley said his son qualified for free meals in the past – which would technically qualify him for free busing – but he forgot to submit the paperwork that proved he qualified for busing. So, at the year’s end, the district sent him to collections to recoup the fees.

The story on bus fees and San Diego Unified’s practice of sending parents to collections generated a lot of buzz on social media. And in fact, more readers expressed shock that San Diego Unified charges for bus fees at all as compared with the readers who were surprised the school district sends parents to collections.

This week, The 74 followed up on our story and looked at three ways school districts could bring transportation costs under control. Meanwhile, La Comadre, a blog in Southern California, was more direct about its feelings for the San Diego Unified practice: San Diego Unified MUST Stop Its Unjust Transportation Tax Immediately, it writes.

A Hostile Board Member, a Familiar Approach

Fresno School Board President Brooke Ashjian has made no secret of his disdain for Fresno Bee education reporter Mackenzie Mays. In recent months, he’s referred to her as a “ministress of propaganda,” “#mysoultroll,” “Mackenzie ‘fakenews’ Mays” and “#cutandpastemays.” In a radio interview, he went so far as to liken her behavior to that of a “child sex predator.”

The Fresno Bee writes that Ashjian’s hostility can be traced to a series Mays has been reporting on sex education in the district. The paper writes that Ashjian’s behavior has actually given his critics a megaphone.

An attempt to discredit a reporter who brings unwanted attention to issues is not new.

Just this week, in fact, after we issued a correction for our story about bus fees, a San Diego Unified School board member took to Facebook to declare that we had “lied” about the story as part of our “war on public education.”

And it’s not just school board members who partake in the hostilities.

When we obtained emails between staff members in attempt to see how members of the press office handle and release information, we saw that the district’s chief public information officer, Andrew Sharp referred to me as “the most deliberately dishonest” reporter he ever worked with, and said our stories critical of district practices are done in an effort to tear down the school district so charter schools can move in. Sharp is the same public school official who joked – twice – about one of VOSD’s reporters turning up dead. At one point, he likened reporters like me to “pedophiles” for the damage we could do if we had access to parents and students.

For reporters, this is par for the course. We do make mistakes. And when we do, we do our best to correct the errors in a timely fashion. But attempts to shoot the messenger because someone doesn’t like the content of a story will not silence journalists. In fact, it often serves to amplify the important issues we cover.

Anti-vaxxers, Tax Loopholes and Potato Cakes

A couple years ago, the state Legislature passed a law that prohibits parents from exempting their kids from mandatory vaccinations based on personal beliefs. The law helped push the state immunization numbers up to a safe level overall, the Los Angeles Times reported in April.

Now, however, “dozens of schools have reported suspiciously high numbers of medical exemptions that, if left unchecked, could endanger their communities,” writes the Times’ editorial board.

Even as San Diego Unified grapples with the impact of last year’s $124 million budget cuts, its board members are eyeing the $59 million shortfall that’s on deck for next year. But school board president Richard Barrera has an idea.

KPBS reports that at this week’s school board meeting, Barrera expressed support for several San Diego nonprofits that are organizing a campaign to end a commercial property tax “loophole” created by Proposition 13, which tied property taxes to the property value assessed at the time of purchase. New money would ostensibly flow into the school district and help fill current funding gaps.

Finally, remember to read the fine print carefully as you sign contracts. One grade schooler in Australia learned this lesson the hard way when she signed a contract, written by her friend, which laid out the terms of an important agreement: He would tell her who he likes – that is, who he like-likes – if she’d sign his paper. She did, but she’d also unwittingly agreed to provide him with potato cakes for an indefinite period of time.

Read as the Reddit community shares legal tips on how she might escape the contract.

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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