Zuri Williams / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

In this bleak time for public education, I’ve been straining to decipher some silver linings.

I thought I caught sight of one recently when Richard Barrera, a school board member for San Diego Unified School District, said online learning had opened up new possibilities for students in lower-income areas. He offered an example.

“We had seven students who wanted to sign up for an AP calculus class at Lincoln High School, and we couldn’t provide the class because it was too few students. Well, now what this creates an opportunity to create AP calculus classes or other classes for students across the district,” he said at a town hall online.

I ran that comment by LaWana Richmond, who is running for school board to represent the subdistrict that includes Lincoln High. She said she agreed with the spirit of what Barrera was saying but warned she didn’t think that was the whole story about what happened to those ambitious students.

Turns out, it wasn’t.

Zuri Williams knows what happened.

Williams’ daughter, Zora Williams, was one of those students (there were eight, not seven). Zora Williams is basically a perfect student. She was an academic star, involved in countless clubs. She left a charter school downtown and enrolled in Lincoln because she wanted to be part of the Lincoln community. For a district and school desperate for enrollment and anxious to counter the narrative that ambitious students should seek out schools to the north or charters, Zora Williams was an absolute gift.

Zora Williams / Photo courtesy of Zuri Williams

She was a student who would drive up performance and expectations and build community.

But Zuri Williams told me that midway through her daughter’s senior year, she came home with some odd news. The Advanced Placement calculus class she was in had been abruptly canceled after the first quarter. She had applied to the most prestigious colleges in the country, all of which would be expecting her to finish the classes in which she was enrolled.

Lincoln High, though, canceled calculus and put Zora Williams in a ceramics class instead.

Soon the prestigious Wellesley College informed her that it had put her on the waitlist for admission. Her confidence plummeted, and she was confused about the options the district laid out for how she could finish the class.

“They pulled the rug out from under my kid,” Zuri Williams said. “That should be the class you save. If you find a girl who is interested in calculus, you don’t squash that. You nurture that.”

The story of the class is a sad one. At first, 21 students signed up for it but after a few weeks, 13 had dropped it. The school decided to cut it off. The eight remaining students could have tried to finish the class online, through the district’s iHigh program. The school also pledged to try to make it work in the fourth quarter of the year after it recruited more students in the meantime.

That ended up happening, and 21 total students finished the class in the fourth quarter.

Barrera said the school, though, should have allowed those eight students to continue with the class without delay.

“I think once a course begins, schools and the district have an obligation to allow students to complete the course,” he wrote in an email.

Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, the school board member who represents the area, got involved in the issue when complaints bounced around public forums. She also said the school made the wrong choice to cancel the class as it did.

“My goal as a board member is to try to make sure we, as a school system, learn from this mistake and get better as a result,” she wrote in an email. She said she was pleased that the district had announced an initiative at the July board meeting that would allow any student to take an AP class online if the in-person class is not offered at their own school.

“I’m really excited about this change, and I think it has the potential to be a real game-changer for many students,” Whitehurst-Payne said.

Zuri Williams said the disruption destabilized Zora Williams’ academic career. And it is hard to imagine anything like that happening at other high schools in the district with predominantly White students.

In the 2018-2019 school year, the latest data available, at Lincoln High School, students scored a three or higher on 41 AP tests (three is considered passing, and usually means the student can earn college course credits). At Scripps Ranch High School, by comparison, students passed 1,058 AP tests.

It’s actually not possible to imagine an AP class being shut down abruptly at Scripps Ranch High or many others.

Zora Williams finally caught a break. Spelman College, a prestigious historically Black college in Atlanta, accepted her and it buoyed her spirits. She got back on track with her studies. She’s now studying at Cal Poly Pomona.

“Enrollment in those AP classes would not have been so low if students were encouraged to stick with it. They blame funding but they didn’t let the math teacher go when they canceled the class. It just showed me what their expectations are. It was so disappointing,” Zuri Williams said.

Kara Grant contributed to this report.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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