More than five decades after the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation is unconstitutional, a group of educators came together this week to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision and to examine both progress made and work to be done.

“Some people of my generation might think that Brown v. the Board of Education is irrelevant, but it’s not, because we’re seeing history repeat itself,” said Loran Simon, the 23-year-old founder of the California Foundation, which hosted the Back to School Summit.

“Fifty-five years later, are minority students being denied equal educational opportunities? The answer is yes,” he said.

Officially segregated schools are a thing of the past, but African Americans and Latinos are still overrepresented in underperforming schools. The achievement gap between black and Latino students and their white and Asian peers remains wide. And de facto segregation is the norm in many San Francisco schools, where a single ethnic group often comprises the majority of the student body.

“This is the civil rights issue of our generation,” said Jack O’Connell, who, as California Superintendent of Public Instruction has made closing the gap in achievement between African American and Latino students and their white counterparts a top priority since taking office.

Statewide, only 36 percent of Latino students tested at or above proficiency in math in 2009, compared to 57 percent of white students. The gap between the math scores of African American students and whites is even wider, with just 30 percent of African American students at or above proficient level.

Even when socioeconomic factors are taken into account, poor white students outperform poor black and Latino students in most cases, according to a 2009 report by the state Department of Education’s Standardized Testing and Reporting Program.

The numbers are similarly bleak at many of the Mission District’s troubled schools, which serve mostly Latino students and some African Americans. In the school year 2007-08, only seven percent of Mission High School students tested at or above the proficient level in math, compared with 34 percent of students district-wide. John O’Connell High School’s math scores were even worse, with three percent of students at or above proficiency.

“We have not upheld the promise of Brown,” said Tony Smith, the superintendent of Oakland Schools.

sanchez

Mark Sanchez, principal of Horace Mann Middle School

That’s evident  at the Mission District’s lone middle school, Horace Mann.

In the school year of 2007-08 only one percent of the school’s eighth-graders are proficient in Algebra One, compared to 60 percent district-wide. And only 14 percent of its eighth graders are proficient in science, compared to 54 percent district-wide.

School commissioner Jill Wynns said there’s no consensus on exactly why the achievement gap exists and persists. “Is it race? Is it socioeconomic? Is it language? There’s a whole sociological library devoted to trying to figure that out.”

Like elsewhere, San Francisco students largely attended the schools near their homes until the 1970s, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sued the school district on the grounds that Black students were confined to poor schools in the city’s East side.

To settle the discrimination suit, the district agreed that no ethnic or racial group could make up more than 40 percent of charter schools or 45 percent of other schools.

But in 1994, The Asian American Law Foundation sued the district, challenging its use of race as a variable in school admission feeling that qualified Asians who tested well were left out of Lowell High School, the city’s top academic school.

As part of the lawsuit’s settlement, the district dropped race as a factor in school assignment in 1999.

Now the district has an open enrollment system which means that all schools are open to all students, but parents must apply. In the event that a school is oversubscribed, the district uses an assignment system that considers factors other than race such as poverty and language spoken at home to give priority to students who would increase the school’s diversity.

The school board is currently at work on a new student assignment policy, which is to be implemented next year. The current system, said Wynns, doesn’t make the district’s schools racially diverse, but it has resulted in more socioeconomic diversity.

Mark Sanchez, Horace Mann’s principal and former president of the San Francisco Board of Education, doesn’t see much socioeconomic or racial diversity at his school where 70 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced lunch in 2007-08, and 77.4 percent of the students were Latino.

While he fully supports school desegregation, Sanchez says he is “cynical and disappointed in San Franciscans,” particularly white families who yanked their children out of the public school system at the height of its desegregation efforts in the mid 1980s. In a city that’s roughly 45 percent Caucasian only about 10 percent of students in the district are white.

“The people who can make choices have spoken,” he said, adding that the school district should not put more energy in trying to desegregate schools. But, he said white people need integration as much as Blacks and Latinos. “If they leave the system, they’re being failed,” he said.

Back at the summit, Oakland Superintendent Smith called for a “community revival” of parents and the general public that would hold schools accountable and support them.

In the Mission District, the non-profit organization Mission Graduates, is working to increase the number of students who go to college. One of their strategies to engage parents in their children’s schools and educational future.

Taking a tip from community health groups, Mission Graduates is training parents as promotores or  liaisons trained by the organization to encourage their fellow parents to take leadership roles in their children’s’ schools, educate parents about college, and help parents understand the college application system.

“Parents need to be looped in and bought in,” said Jeff Feinman, the group’s executive director.

Parents and schools alike need to have hold higher expectations for their children, said Yolanda De La Paz, a Coro Fellow who spoke on the summit panel. As a high schooler in Fremont she found out first-hand how some schools underestimate minority students.

When De La Paz, who was in Spanish and English bilingual classes in elementary school tried to take honors classes in high school, she was denied because the classes were open only to students who had tested as gifted.

But the school didn’t administer the test to English language learners.

De La Paz, who eventually prevailed, said stories like hers are too common, “The schools make the decision of how far [students] will get before they even have the ability to decide for themselves how far they’ll go.”

But at the summit, many educators seemed fired up to tear down the barriers to equal education. “It’s about us taking responsibility for these outcomes,” said Smith. “We’ve got to love the heck out of these kids! We’ve got to love and respect them every day in school,” he said. The crowd went wild.