Winning the Fight for Higher Standards on the East Side

(Stock Photo)
(Stock Photo)

Sitting in the back of the multi-purpose room at Mt. Pleasant High School in east San Jose on Friday, I reflected on the untapped potential of this dynamic community. The occasion was the annual MESA (Mathematics Engineering Science & Achievement) College Poster Contest.  MESA is a non-profit organization that helps prepare educationally underrepresented students to graduate from college with an engineering, science, business or mathematics degree.

The college poster contest, one of many MESA programs, challenges students to research a college of their choice, make a poster, and present their findings to a panel of judges. For the past two years, I’ve had the honor to serve as a judge in the high school division. To my delight, the entire afternoon was an east side affair. MESA’s executive director at San Jose State University is a James Lick High School alum like me, the contest coordinator is an Evergreen High School grad, and the students represented east side schools.

I was impressed by the meticulous research, creativity and oral presentation skills demonstrated by the students. Two junior girls from Silver Creek High School, who chose to highlight UCLA, made my day. When I asked if they took the A-G class schedule needed to apply to UCLA, one of the girls said, “everyone takes A-G classes,” while the other smiled and nodded in agreement. A rush of emotion washed over me as I remembered the 2010 “A-G” fight at the East Side Union High School District.

In California, the A-G curriculum is the checklist of classes students need to take to be eligible to apply for college in the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems. Most school districts don’t require an A-G curriculum for all students. According to a 2009 California Post Secondary Education Commission report, “the college-going rate for students in California to UC schools was 7.2% and the rate to CSU schools was 10.5%.”

In 2008, just six of the state’s over 400 school districts that issued high school diplomas required an A-G curriculum. The East Side was like the vast majority of school districts where 90% of the graduates weren’t even eligible to apply to a UC or CSU. During my term serving on the school board at the East Side from 2006-2010, a group of students from the district’s chapter of Californians for Justice (CFJ) were campaigning the school board to make A-G the required curriculum for all students.

When I was elected board president in 2009, I joined the CFJ students, their families, and community supporters to fight for A-G at East Side schools by announcing at the annual State of the District Address that I would ask the board to approve an A-G curriculum for all students by the end of the year. The standing room-only crowd in James Lick’s multi-purpose room that night expressed full support for what would be called the A-G Initiative.

I thought the proposal was a no-brainer that would easily pass the board by mid-summer. The day after the State of the District Address, I quickly learned that it would be anything but easy. I met with opponents who were concerned and angry that I made such a bold statement without consulting the broader education community. They warned that the rigorous curriculum would “set up students to fail” as “these students weren’t prepared to pass Algebra II.”

Together with students, parents, and community supporters, we moved forward nonetheless. The Silicon Valley Education Foundation joined the fight by providing critical resources to educate the public and my board colleagues on the values of A-G. Later that spring, I had a massive heart attack with complications that kept me in the hospital for over 100 days. As I fought for my life in the ICU, the community fought for A-G and higher standards on the east side.

The A-G vote was scheduled for the October board meeting and the initiative’s opponents had asked the board to delay the vote and convene a study session to better understand the impacts. Although I was home from the hospital, I was in no condition to participate in the board meeting, so my four board colleagues would determine the fate of A-G. The board ended up deadlocked so both proposals failed to get the required three votes for move forward. A-G was dead.

The next day, I confirmed with district officials that I was still board president and could vote by teleconference, so I asked the administration to once again place the issue on November’s board agenda. Student, parents, and community supporters rallied their troops to attend the November board meeting to show solidarity for the initiative. I planned to by on telephone standby until the issue came to a vote.

By the night of meeting, I was strong enough to attend and persuaded Sandra to let me participate in the A-G vote. An overflow crowd came to the board chambers on November 18, 2010, to enthusiastically urge the board to vote for the A-G Initiative. After brief comments by each board member, we unanimously voted to require the A-G checklist to be the default curriculum for all students beginning with the Class of 2015.

After casting my last vote as a school board member, I turned toward the door behind the dais and walked out of the board chambers for the last time as students and families celebrated their hard-fought victory. That was, and always will be, my proudest moment as an eastsider . We showed everyone that our community valued high standards that night. Last Friday, when the young woman from the Silver Creek High Class of 2015 matter-of-factly told me that, “everyone takes A-G classes,” I smiled, assured that 2010 was worth the fight.

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