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The Black Student Experience In San Diego Unified Is Better, But Still Needs Improvement

The San Diego Unified School District Board of Education building is shown in...

Photo by Milan Kovacevic

Above: The San Diego Unified School District Board of Education building is shown in this photo, Sept. 15, 2017.

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In the past decade, San Diego Unified School District has made significant progress toward reducing the longstanding inequities its Black students have faced, but there’s room for growth.

Aired: February 25, 2021 | Transcript

Makhfira Abdullahi is the 18-year-old daughter of Ethiopian immigrants who came to the United States in 1990 as refugees during the Somali Civil War. Growing up, Abdullahi’s parents had high expectations for her in school.

But, she says, her teachers didn’t have the same expectations.

Listen to this story by Joe Hong.

“That’s when I started to realize I need to start doing better in school and really take it seriously,” Abdullahi said. “And if I didn’t they’d probably just see me as that other Black student who doesn’t care about school and who doesn’t want to listen. You know, just to reinforce those stereotypes.”

Her middle school years were especially discouraging — she and her Black peers felt isolated and targeted for punishment. But Abdullahi began standing up for herself once she got to Morse High School.

“I tried my hardest, talked to my counselors, put me in those AP classes,” she said. “I don’t care if you won’t let me, I’m still gonna keep trying. That’s when I really started getting into school, but the experience was definitely not easy.”

Reported by Joe Hong

The hard work paid off — Abdullahi was accepted into UC San Diego, where she is now a freshman majoring in political science. Meanwhile, San Diego Unified officials are working to replicate Abudllahi’s success for all Black students while eliminating the discrimination she faced on the path to achieving her academic goals.

They’ve succeeded on a number of levels, but there is still significant work to be done, say experts and community members.

RELATED: Black Youth More Likely To Be Detained By San Diego Unified Police

Pedro Noguera, the Dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, led a 2019 study of the district that found it had increased both graduation and college-readiness rates for Black students.

Since 2013, the percentage of Black students who graduate eligible to enroll in a California State University or a University of California campus has gone from 38.7% to 66.8%.

“That’s a really powerful factor because that has a bearing on college eligibility rates,” Noguera siad. “So you’ve seen the number of Black students that are eligible for admission to Cal State and the University of California go up, and that I think is not an insignificant data point.”

Nicole DeWitt, an instructional support officer at the district, said she expects this trend to continue even during this school year.

“We did not see a dip. We were pretty steady and on par. There were even some areas of growth,” she said. “We had all of our secondary schools on a quarter system to offer students more opportunities to remediate grades.”

Yet, while the district made these strides in academics during outgoing Superintendent Cindy Marten’s tenure, results for school discipline have been mixed. The suspension rate for Black students dropped from 9% in 2013-2014, Martin’s first year, to 8.6% in 2018-2019, with the rates fluctuating in the years between. But Black students are still more than three times as likely to be suspended than their white peers, according to the most recent data.

LaWana Richmond, a former student and school board candidate from Southeast San Diego, said it’s a sign that Black students are still seen as outsiders at schools.

“I think a big factor in the high suspension rates is ‘othering’: children show up with a different cultural context and background and frame of reference,” she said. “When you think of a child as your neighbor, your community member, your family member, your child, the way that you see them is different than if you see them as ‘those’ kids.”

DeWitt said as students return to campus, educators will continue to emphasize restorative justice practices to address student behaviors instead of traditional punishments. She said 4,500 staff members attended restorative justice training this year.

“We are gonna have students coming to us who have traumas that we’ve never faced before, and so that may manifest itself in the classroom,” DeWitt said. “They may need to learn how to act appropriately inside class.”

Both Richmond and Noguera say the district has an opportunity to strengthen trust between educators and students when campuses open back up. But, they said, it must be done right.

Photo by Photo courtesy of Makhfira Abdullahi

Makhfira Abdullahi, a graduate of Morse High School and current student at UC San Diego, poses for a photo, Feb. 25, 2021.

RELATED: Study: Black Students Still More Likely To Face Harsh Discipline

Noguera said overemphasizing academics and making up for what’s been referred to as learning loss is not the path to an equitable post-pandemic public school system.

“I would prioritize bringing some joy to learning, like arts and music so that kids want to be in school,” he said. “I would really focus on getting kids engaged as learners before we focus narrowly on assessment.”

San Diego Unified officials say they get it. Shortly after this summer’s protests for racial justice, the district revised its grading policy to emphasize mastery of material over things like attendance and work habits.

DeWitt said the policy change will be a “huge shift” towards equitable grading practices that allow teachers to be more flexible for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“This is not pandemic related,” she said. “This was related to us trying to dismantle the systemic institutionalized racism within grading policies and practices.”

The district also revised school policing policy so that campus police officers are called only for the most serious offenses like sexual assault and possession of a weapon or a controlled substance.

Abdullahi, the UC San Diego student, says she’s hoping these changes stick and her younger siblings benefit.

“There’s still so much history that needs to be covered and so much history that Black students deserve to learn about the history of their people. In regular AP US history they just brush over the major topics, Jim Crow, slavery. There’s so much work that needs to be done, but it’s a step in the right direction for now.”

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