It was the proverbial elephant in the room, but it wasn’t gray — it was black and white.

As the local Board of Education convened Wednesday evening to discuss strategies for closing achievement gaps in the Santa Monica-Malibu school district, several officials and community members pointed to institutionalized racism as a barrier for progress among minority students.

The concept was broached several times during the meeting, which was an attempt by the school board to settle on overarching goals for the 2016-17 school year as officials work to implement strategies recommended by Pedro Noguera.

The retreat was held during the first week of school and about a year after Noguera was hired to identify obstacles for improving equity in a district where officials believe academic success is tied too strongly to demographic background.

“We’ve seen some really positive things, but in terms of reaching systems change we’re kind of stuck,” board member Oscar de la Torre said. “In terms of institutionalized racism, how do we talk about this without being offensive? I’m struggling with friends and family when I start talking about Black Lives Matter. Immediately, it’s ‘All lives matter.’ But black people are being killed by police, and we want to talk about a social cause. How do you have the discussion and the dialogue without getting people defensive? It’s difficult.

“These issues are emotional. We’re talking about equity, and we know that if we fail to educate, we incarcerate. We’re talking about the right things, but how do we do that without people talking it offensively?”

Board president Laurie Lieberman noted the many other factors and groups involved in effecting systemic change and acknowledged that dedicated and talented people have been working to improve outcomes in Santa Monica.

She said debating what to call the problem is less important than being vulnerable and trying to come up with solutions.

“The issue is not, ‘Do we put a label on it?’” Lieberman said. “The issue is, it’s very clear … there are institutionalized practices and behaviors that I think most of us would be open to examining.”

Joanne Berlin, a leader of the local Committee for Racial Justice, said SMMUSD can improve student achievement in part through more culturally responsive education. Several officials advocated for an expansion of ethnic studies in district schools.

Berlin also said district officials must pay close attention to early warning indicators and help struggling students before it’s too late.

“You can’t just let students from preschool and grade school fall by the way,” she said. “You have to see what’s going on and how to catch that. …

“Racism is real. It has to be understood, and it has to be, somehow, taught to children. It would behoove us to get a focus on what’s happening. We do know that there’s institutional racism, and that’s why there’s an achievement gap. That is the strongest driver. … We have to address that and figure out how to talk about it without allowing people to be so defensive that they can’t even hear or understand.”

Bernice Onofre, a member of the district advisory committee on intercultural equity and excellence, said the achievement gap has negative repercussions not only for students in the district but also for their parents.

She said the district must address racism and microaggressions, adding that it it would help if the SMMUSD staff reflected the demographic makeup of the student body.

“We’ve been fighting for this for years,” she said.

jeff@smdp.com

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