Education Equality Appeal Delivered at All People’s Breakfast

ACLU’s Field & Policy Director,
Andrea Guerrero, delivered the following speech at the All Peoples Breakfast in San Diego on January 19, 2009.

Good morning. It is an honor to be speaking to all of you on Dr. King’s birthday. My work with the ACLU, with the Immigration Rights Consortium, and with the Education Consortium ties in to the great work of the man we honor today in so many ways: we look to Dr. King’s example as we decry the break-up of families by a nonsensical immigration system, as we continue his struggle for equal opportunity in education and employment, even as we are fighting right now for marriage equality.

But today, out of all those big struggles, I want to talk about something straightforward and close-to-home: education in San Diego.

In the wake of economic crisis and on the eve of an historic inauguration, why can’t we wait to talk about fixing our high schools? Why can’t we wait for the celebration to be over or for the economy to improve?

Because tomorrow, Johnny, Josefina, and Jamal will go to a school that is undermining their future and our economy.

These young San Diegans want to believe in the promise of America: that all of us have the opportunity to succeed.

They want to believe in the vision of a minister from Atlanta; of a world in which they are judged by who they are … smart, creative, talented … and not by which school they’re zoned for. But they can’t.

You see, Johnny wants to succeed in life, but success stories from his mostly white rural San Diego County high school are rare. Like Johnny, most of the students in his high school are poor, and no one seems to expect much from them.
No one at school has talked to him about college and his father tells him that a high school degree was enough in his time to get a steady job, and it should be enough for his son, too.

What Johnny and his father don’t know is that a high school degree is not going to be enough. When his father was his age, most of the jobs in the county required little more than a high school degree. Now most of the jobs require a four-year college or community college education. Other jobs require an apprenticeship that is as rigorous as college.

Josefina knows this and wants to go to a four-year college. Her mother went to college and as a result has a good job, and she encourages her daughter to have high aspirations. Even though only 10 percent of the students in her mostly Latino school in North County go to college, Josefina does well in her classes–the classes she’s automatically enrolled in. She believes that she’s on track to fulfill her college dream.

What Josefina and her mother aren’t being told is that the classes she’s enrolled in are not part of the A-G curriculum that she needs to complete in order to be eligible for a four-year college.

Let me stop here for just a second and make sure we’re all clear on what the A-G curriculum is. A-G classes are those that teach core skills in English, Math, Science, Language, and Social Studies, and are certified by the UC or CSU systems as meeting a certain standard of rigor. Don’t confuse them with AP, or Advanced Placement, which can serve as college credit. A-G classes don’t serve as college credit. Rather, they are the minimum courses required to get in to college at all.

There are thousands of courses certified as A-G in California. These courses range from traditional academic courses to more vocational ones. The form does not matter. What matters is the rigor and the content. For example, a woodshop course that is rigorous in teaching core math skills can be certified as an A-G course. What’s important to know here is that teachers can easily adopt any of the courses already certified as A-G or they can go through the process of certifying one of their own.

The courses Josefina has taken thus far are called English, Math, Science and so on, but they are less rigorous, are not certified as “A-G”, will not make her eligible for college, and will only allow her to graduate from high school. She could get a perfect 4.0, but the state colleges won’t even look at her application.

When her mother was in high school years ago, the A-G curriculum didn’t exist, so she isn’t even aware of it. Most people aren’t.

Now on to Jamal: he’s one of the few students in his inner-city, majority-black San Diego high school who knows about the A-G curriculum because he transferred here from the San Jose School District where A-G is the default curriculum. Jamal isn’t sure what he wants to do after high school, but he wants the option of going to college, so he knows A-G is important for that reason.

He’s also heard about a great apprenticeship program offered by the local electrical workers union that would train him right out of high school to work in the field of solar technology which is going to be a booming industry in the near future. But in order to apply for the apprenticeship program he has to learn most of the same core skills he would need to go to college, so A-G is important to him for that reason also.

Since arriving at his new high school, Jamal has been fighting with his counselor to get into A-G courses. It’s difficult to get appointments with her because she has nearly 300 students to counsel. When Jamal finally meets with her, she discourages him from taking A-G courses because they might be “too hard for him.” When he persists, the counselor tells him there are not enough spaces in the courses for him to enroll.

What Jamal is coming to realize is that A-G enrollment and completion is not a priority at his new school. Counselors are not bending over backwards to enroll students in the A-G classes. A-G is not the default curriculum. On the contrary, only 30 percent of the classes are A-G. In a few public schools in San Diego County, more than 90 percent of the classes offered are A-G, but Jamal is not lucky enough to live near one of them. He is stuck at a school like many of the schools in the county, which cut short the future of promising students.

Jamal thinks about the irony, the inconsistency, and the inequality. In his old school, students had to fight to get out of A-G, but here in San Diego, he has to fight to get in.

Is there anyone here wondering why this is a civil rights issue? Is there anyone who can guess which neighborhoods, which socioeconomic and racial groups are hit hardest by our institutionalized lack of post-secondary preparation?

San Diego County currently ranks near the bottom of major counties in the preparation of its students for post-secondary training. Within the county, schools in historically low-income and minority neighborhoods are offering the least number of A-G courses, and sending the least number of kids to college.

But here’s the good news: this is the easiest civil rights issue I’ve ever worked on, and that’s because it’s so simple. We can all agree that as a matter of economic survival, all kids need to be prepared for postsecondary training. It’s not a matter of decades of struggle: all we need to get things started is some administrators with vision and some parents to support them.

We can do better, San Diego. We can follow the lead of San Jose and other districts and make A-G the default curriculum. When San Jose did this, the district drastically improved the preparation of all students and more than doubled the college-eligibility rates of African Americans, Latinos, Filipinos, and Native Americans.

More than doubled! Imagine.

As a county, we cannot afford to fail Johnny, Josephina, and Jamal. Soon 7 in 10 jobs will require a college education of some kind and other jobs will require rigorous apprenticeships. But only 4 in 10 high school graduates in this county complete the A-G curriculum and are prepared for post-secondary training at all.

That means it’s NOT the time to wait for a school budget surplus or to patch up the problem by bussing kids to schools with more A-G courses. IT IS the time to take this first simple step towards better education in San Diego: A-G for all schools, for all students, for all districts, across the county.

We can do it. If we believe in our young people and give them the opportunity and support they need to succeed, they will succeed and we will all benefit. And that’s a little piece of Dr. King’s dream right there.

I invite you to join the growing chorus of voices that are calling for A-G for All. You can learn more at the booth outside or go to educatesandiego.org.

Thank you.