How far should students go and how long should it take to get to high school? The answers to these questions raise serious legal concerns when students of color are forced to travel farther and longer than their peers and experience a host of other challenges as a result, according to “Pushing the Line,” a report released today by Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and Bingham McCutchen LLP.
Through a jigsaw of attendance boundaries, Sequoia Union High School District’s (SUHSD) student assignment plan currently divides minority students from East Palo Alto between three different high schools across non-contiguous attendance zones. As a result, the District’s process for assigning students to high school may be discriminatory. The report outlines how the District’s assignment plan potentially runs afoul of federal and state civil rights law and urges the District to change its school assignment practice.
“Students of color in East Palo Alto currently bear an unfair burden simply because of where they live,” says Kimberly Thomas Rapp, Lawyers’ Committee Executive Director. “High school can be inherently demanding, but in addition to the challenges we expect students to face during this formative period, these students are additionally burdened by longer commutes, isolation from their peers, and logistical impediments to greater parental involvement,” says Rapp. “When the outcome of a school assignment plan has negative ramifications that are shouldered solely by minority students at the expense of their own academic success, we have a problem.”
“Our goal with this report is to shine a spotlight on this inequity. We hope that with full knowledge of the academic and legal consequences of the current student assignment plan, the District will now take affirmative steps to remedy the hardships currently faced by East Palo Alto students,” says Marcelo Quiñones, an associate at Bingham McCutchen.
Among its recommendations, the report urges the District to remove the current attendance boundaries that divide East Palo Alto, craft a student assignment plan that treats all students equally, and develop better high school transition programs.
“Collaboration between our districts in recent years is a step forward. However, these inequitable policies and practices continue to harm East Palo Alto youth,” says Avani Patel, Academic Dean at Costaño School & the 49ers Academy in East Palo Alto. “As educators, we have an obligation to ensure our policies and practices value the educational success of East Palo Alto children just as much as other children. I challenge us all to act swiftly and courageously because it’s the right thing to do for all students.”
“I remember very clearly the first time I showed the SUHSD boundary map to a group of East Palo Alto middle school students. Three girls – friends and classmates since kindergarten – pored over the map locating their homes. When they discovered that they would not be attending the same high school because of this arbitrary zoning, they looked to me and asked, ‘Why do they do that to us?’ I didn’t have an answer,” says Ellen Mouchawar, a community advocate. “I hope that this report makes it clear that SUHSD has an obligation to ensure that all students, regardless of where they live, are treated equally.”
Candice Francis, the author of this article, is the communications director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.