During her time as a Santa Monica High School student, Rocio Garcia had to be her own academic advocate.

She wanted to take Advanced Placement biology, she said, but claimed that an administrator wouldn’t let her enroll.

“She thought I didn’t have enough education or power to do well in this class,” the Class of 2014 alumna said. “I thought I was pushed down and not given that chance to prove myself to be a great student. … They thought we weren’t capable.”

The local Board of Education heard Garcia’s account last week as it considered sweeping structural and cultural changes in the Santa Monica-Malibu school district, which is trying to close longstanding achievement gaps along ethnic and socioeconomic lines.

Recently released state test scores reiterate those chasms. Local pass rates in English ranged from 86 percent for Asians and 82 percent for white students to 52 percent for Hispanic students and 50 percent for African Americans. Similarly, just 33 percent of black SMMUSD test-takers and 39 percent of Latino students met or exceeded standards in math, while white and Asian students’ rates climbed to 74 percent and 82 percent, respectively.

“That’s intolerable,” said interim co-superintendent Sylvia Rousseau, a former Samohi principal who led the meeting. “There’s no child that should come through this school district that doesn’t have access to excellence.”

Rousseau tried to make the meeting as democratic as possible, repeatedly inviting attendees to speak and putting the wider discussion on hold to allow for dialogue in smaller groups. She said the next task for the school board is to set benchmarks and metrics that will help officials evaluate progress on improving equity in SMMUSD, a priority for the district as it works with education reformist Pedro Noguera.

“This has been a really special night,” board president Laurie Lieberman said. “All of your comments were so insightful and powerful and enriching in terms of the whole conversation we’re going to continue to have.”

Former students, parents and community members lamented that minority children had not been encouraged or supported in their scholastic pursuits, and several officials noted the importance of active engagement in keeping students motivated at school. The district keeps track of a variety of trends to measure engagement, including graduation rates, suspension rates and absences.

“The minute kids say, ‘It’s not for me,’ we’ve lost them,” board member Craig Foster said. “And they don’t come back.”

Students who have tried to improve their academic experiences have also come across a variety of obstacles.

“There should be more help for these students,” Garcia said.

Liliana Palma, for one, probably could have passed a test for bravery during her time at Samohi.

Her parents didn’t have time to speak with her academic counselors, she said, but she needed their written permission to take honors and Advanced Placement classes.

Palma felt as though the school administration believed she wasn’t capable of succeeding in those courses.

“I had to forge my parents’ signatures,” she said. “I forged I don’t know how many signatures to get into all the honors and AP classes. … It’s so unfortunate.”

jeff@www.smdp.com