Commentary: Addressing inequality in Long Beach Unified through We The People High School
Anita Ravi | October 29, 2018
I grew up in Sudbury, Massachusetts, zip code 01776, home of the very first town meeting on this continent in 1649. My mother, a Daughter of the American Revolution, and my father, an immigrant from India, attended this town meeting monthly and instilled in me a deep sense of civic responsibility and civic engagement. These deep roots in civic activism propelled me to a career in public education. As a teacher, school district leader, and teacher educator these past 26 years, I continue to believe that my responsibility as a citizen is to create pathways for our youth to lives and careers of active engagement in shaping the future of our country and our planet.
As an educator and Long Beach resident, I am dismayed to see our school district abdicating its responsibility to serve all students equitably. It is the very reason I am opening We The People High School (WTP), an innovative, tuition-free public charter school slated to open in fall 2019 in Long Beach that will focus on engaging our youth in social change.
Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) has become a heartbreaking tale of haves vs. have-nots and long been negligent in serving its highest needs students. Last May, LBUSD settled a lawsuit which exposed its misallocation of more than $40 million in state education funding that was specifically designed to increase or improve services for low-income students, English language learners and foster youth. Unfortunately, the settlement is not enough to address the longstanding opportunity gap that persists.
LBUSD’s High School Choice process continues to exacerbate these inequalities. The opportunity gap widens significantly starting in middle school, as LBUSD utilizes a formula based on state test scores and student GPA (grade point average) from sixth and seventh grade to place students into different high school “small learning communities” or “specialized programs.” What these euphemistic labels mean in practice is that some students are offered a college-preparatory curriculum in high school and some are not based on how “well” they did in school when they were 11 and 12 years old.
For example, 62 percent of students graduating from Stephens Middle School in June of 2018 are not high school ready, according to the California Dashboard. If these same students attend their area high school, Cabrillo High, it is unlikely they will be offered a college preparatory curriculum, and likely they will not graduate with the option to attend a four-year state college or university. In 2017, only 22 percent of Cabrillo High School students graduated with an A-G transcript. In 2018, only 14 percent of 11th graders were proficient or advanced in math. In effect, students’ life trajectories are being determined by their academic performance at age 12 in schools that are historically underperforming.
Name one parent who feels their child should not be given the opportunity to go to college? You can’t be college-ready if you’re not given access to college-prep courses.
At We The People High School, we deeply believe it is our responsibility to prepare ALL students for college, and all our students will have access to an A-G college preparatory curriculum. We also believe that college degree attainment is a necessary but insufficient preparation for the real world, which is why WTP will focus on civic action, learning by doing, and the development of skills and habits aligned to our “Envision, Design, Create” thematic pillars. For students who have not been successful in the traditional school model in middle school, we offer a dynamic program of study that offers multiple entry points into culturally relevant content and an emphasis on activism through education. Our small school model, small class sizes, and advisory structures ensure that students are known, are heard, and are supported each and every day.
Since the summer of 2017, we have engaged the broader community in understanding, shaping, and co-designing our school model. Our student “pop-ups” are designed to engage students in social activism through art and media creation, while gathering critical feedback to ensure our model is designed to meet the needs of all learners. We have reached out to diverse community groups, such as the Cambodian Association of America and Latinas in Action, to provide parents the chance to influence and shape the very school their children may attend. WTP has participated in local events such as the Pop UpTown Social and JazzFest in an effort to engage and educate. The many ways we have engaged the community illustrates that our school model not only preaches social activism but also practices it. You can learn more about our school model and enrollment process at www.wethepeopleps.org, or visit us at our next Family Information Session on Nov. 14 at 6:00 p.m. at the Uptown Business District (6082 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach, CA 90805).
It is abundantly clear that our nation’s youth are more than ready to show how their power can both change and create a world where inclusion is valued and systemic issues are addressed. Youth activists in Chicago, in Parkland, and here in Long Beach show us every day that the survival of our democracy depends on their ability to make change. We The People High School strengthens and encourages these voices through an equitable program that engages students in solving the most pressing issues of our time while putting ALL students on a trajectory for college.
Anita Ravi is a Long Beach resident and veteran educator, having worked as a teacher, school district leader, and teacher educator for 26 years. She was formerly chief academic officer at Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, a network of high-performing public charter schools in Los Angeles County.