Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District officials hope to address themes related to identity and diversity this school year. Courtesy photo.

The killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, weeks of social unrest and activism, and now the shooting of Jacob Blake have thrust America’s pervasive racial inequalities into sharp focus. In response to these events, SMMUSD held a special meeting last night reaffirming its commitment to implementing a social justice agenda and outlining its plan to increase equity among students and become an “anti-racist” organization in the upcoming school year.

“We bear a great responsibility as educators for shaping society as we have the unique privilege of educating our youth as they are forming their values and worldview,” said Superintendent Ben Drati. “We have a responsibility to ensure equity and opportunity for all students while working at the same time to create a better and more just world for our students to inherit.”

In 2018, SMMUSD created a social justice framework to support anti-bias education and teach students about identity, diversity, justice, and action. The district also implements programs like Young Collegians and AVID to help disadvantaged, minority, or struggling students receive individualized tutoring and educational opportunities in preparation for high school and college. Despite these efforts, an independent evaluation by education consultant Dr. Pedro Noguera found that SMMUSD had marked disparities in student achievement.

“For over twenty years, SMMUSD has undertaken a number of initiatives to address and reduce racial and socio-economic disparities in student achievement. However, for a variety of reasons, none of these efforts have reduced disparities in student achievement or produced significant or sustainable improvements in academic outcomes for African American and Latino students, English language learners, children with learning disabilities and low-income students generally, in the school district,” Noguera said in his report to the district.

Noguera added he observed several factors related to the mismatch between SMMUSD’s agenda of equity and students’ actual performance, including inconsistent implementation of programs that are designed to reduce academic disparities and divergent understandings of key initiatives that contribute to a lack of buy-in from staff members.

As America undergoes a national reckoning with race and inequality, the district strives to bridge the gap between its goals for equity and its students’ performance. The first step shared in the board meeting was to get all staff members on the same page through a coherent instructional framework of “culturally responsive practices; a guaranteed viable curriculum; student, staff, and family engagement; and high performing teams.”

“We are talking about getting 600 certificated staff members and 800 classified staff members working willingly towards where we need them to go. No one is going to monitor what is going on in the classroom every day,” said Drati. “What this structure gives us is a way of getting all those staff members working in concert with the parents and with the students heading towards one direction. It is a huge feat and it doesn’t cost extra money. We just have to change our attitudes and learn how to work together.”

During the special meeting, district representatives presented a range of initiatives developed through Dr. Noguera’s feedback, the expertise of district staff and an anti-racism task force.

In terms of curriculum, the district intends to continue professional development on the integration of social justice standards into coursework, strengthen existing ethnic studies courses and explore new course options. The district will also continue to work with Black Parent Support Groups and in February 2021 will hold a Black Lives Matter week at schools.

The Anti-Racism Task Force has created sample lessons for teachers and developed pages on SMMUSD’s website with anti-racism resources for educators and families. Part of the lesson plans include age-sensitive guides for teachers to discuss systemic racism and the events of this summer with their students.

“We are recommitting to making unbiased choices and are looking at how these choices impact the connection, culture and climate that we facilitate as educators within our school sites,” said Jacqueline Mora, Assistant Superintendent. “We were going to be learning and transforming together as we make sense of what it would mean for us to move into being, not just socially just, but an anti-racist learning organization.”