The Defiant Ones

Marin educators fight to close the ‘achievement gap’

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Dr. Itoco Garcia has experienced the benefits and downsides of being a person of color in Marin County public schools.

Dr. Itoco Garcia has experienced the best and the worst of Marin County first-hand when it comes to education and discrimination.

Garcia, two months into his new post as superintendent of the Sausalito­­–Marin City School District, attended public school in Mill Valley and graduated from Mt. Tamalpais High School in the early 1990’s. He’s a “mountain kid” who grew up in the shadow of Mt. Tam, in Mill Valley before going on to get his doctorate.

“I owe a lot to the public education that I received in Marin,” says Garcia. “I got a private-school education in a public school setting.” He recalls his first semesters at U.C. Berkeley where he was routinely in classes with students from Exeter and other top-tier prep schools. Yet Garcia felt like he had a leg up on those classmates, and credits his Marin education, which brought him from Homestead Elementary to Old Mill School in Mill Valley to Mt. Tam high.

“That being said,” adds Garcia, “I had a lot of experiences here growing up where I didn’t feel very included, or that were outright discriminatory—inside and outside of school, and sometimes with law enforcement.”

That two-track experience, says Garcia, whose parents are Colombian and Scottish-English, “really inspired me when I made the decision to be an educator.” It’s an experience that continues to be a part of the Marin education landscape: The county’s the state leader when it comes to the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Garcia, 45, returns to Marin County after working most recently in Oakland and Hayward. Now he’s in charge of the Bayside Martin Luther King Academy and the Willow Creek Academy, a charter that operates in the old Bayside Elementary building. Given the achievement gap, school officials like Garcia are focused on how to best serve at-risk students.

One change underway is the state’s ban on “defiance” suspensions. That ban has been in place since 2018 and has already had an impact in Marin schools—especially those that aim to disrupt the “school-to-prison pipeline” for vulnerable and at-risk students.

The ban on “defiance” suspensions has already borne some results, he says. “Folks are seeing some improvement,” he says, “some lessening of the power dynamic between the students and the teachers. The defiance charge was really all about control—and I lived it, as a student, a teacher, an instructional coach and as a principal.”

When Katy Foster and Erin Ashley set out to create a new charter school in San Rafael several years ago, they were intent on bridging student achievement gaps and addressing suspension rates in the county that routinely eclipse the state average.

The women wanted to bring restorative practices to their school, and they envisioned a diverse high school that prioritized building social and emotional skills for students.

They emphasized trauma-informed educational practices in their pedagogy—and they recognized that excluding kids from class, suspending them for being defiant, was feeding in to a sense of exclusion among minority students, many from minority communities already dealing with, for example, a constant sense of fear over being deported. “We came with an eye for a trauma-informed school and we know that excluding students is re-traumatizing them,” says Foster.

Community and district pushback stymied the proposed Ipso School. The women appealed to the county to see if there was another avenue to execute their mission. There was.

They approached Marin Schools Superintendent Mary Jane Burke who told the women that she had just the school in mind for them to execute their program. Enter the Phoenix Academy, Marin’s first charter (it’s been around since 1995), which has historically been a place for students struggling with addiction.

Burke sought to bring their model into the Marin system she oversees. “I brought an idea for a charter schools program into Marin’s Community School [MCS] because I believed in the purpose and the vision of the program,” she says, “but the charter school petition needed to be denied. Now, we have a thriving program modeled after what would have been a charter school.”

The school operates in tandem with MCS, the county’s community program that serves Marin students who’ve been referred there because of attendance problems or because they’d otherwise face expulsion.

The end of defiance suspensions, says Foster, has put the onus on teachers and administrators to “try other options”—including so-called “restorative community” practices, where students are held to account for their behavior within the school and community, instead of being suspended.

Foster says reform efforts implemented at Phoenix over the past two years are paying off. “We built upon the work that was happening before to implement new structures to increase the rigor,” she says, while also emphasizing restorative practices which have, she says, helped drive down suspensions by nearly two-thirds in the third quarter of 2018 compared to the previous year.

California’s the nation’s leader when it comes to the number of charter schools and students—some 1,300 charters operate in the state at last count. One of the persistent critiques of the charter phenomenon is that the schools can create, enhance, or at least lend an impression among parents that there’s two-tier public school system where some students are stuck in the regular public school, while other, higher-performing students go to the charter. They’ve been criticized for a lack of public accountability and for embodying the “neoliberal” drive to leverage public-private partnerships wherever those opportunities exist.

Burke has met the charter challenge head-on and oversees a district that sees the benefits of charters—but would just as soon they were enfolded into the main of Marin’s educational system.

“Charter schools were designed to offer a parental choice for their child’s education,” Burke says. “I believe that each parent should have the right to determine the best environment for their child and family. That said, I do believe that we have amazing traditional public schools in Marin County and encourage parents to consider our schools as a viable option.”

She favors solutions such as the Phoenix model: “We also have many specialized programs within our existing schools that operate as a ‘school-within-a-school,’ which is my preference as opposed to creating another school.”

Garcia’s taking over a Marin district where the rates of suspension have ticked downward over the past couple years—but are still higher than the state average. “Both schools have made significant progress in reducing suspensions,” he says, “and they’ve made significant gains in improving the school culture and climate.”

Restorative practices are a key to keeping kids in their classroom seats, Garcia adds, but “you need a system and a structure to improve the school’s climate and culture as well as the restorative practices.”

And you need a state that’s willing to change its policies. “There were many schools in California that were being investigated” says Garcia of the end of the defiance suspensions, “and getting Office of Civil Rights complaints because there were disproportionate numbers of African American, Hispanic and special needs students being suspended. The disproportionate number of suspensions were often on this defiance charge.”

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