How the San Francisco School Board Silenced Latino Families
by Laura Fagan
Our school board failed us this year. It failed to get kids back in school. It failed to support families who wanted to stay home. And it especially failed Latino children, who fell behind their peers at alarming rates — or disappeared from school entirely.
And when their families called out for help, no one listened.
The Board of Education’s own surveys showed that the majority of Latino families wanted to return. But you wouldn’t have known that from school board meetings, where they promoted a false narrative that only white families wanted in-person school. Latino preferences were ignored, and their voices were silenced by the very board members who claimed to speak for them.
LATINO FAMILIES PLEADED FOR THEIR KIDS TO RETURN
Our story begins with a plea for help. In October 2020, the Native Latin-American Mission Mom’s Committee (an independent and self-managed organization of Latino families from the Mission neighborhood that advocates for educational equity and provides recreational, cultural and educational outdoor activities for children) sent a letter to Commissioners Mark Sanchez and Gabriela Lopez, former president and current president of the Board of Education, and to all members of the BOE. It was signed by roughly 75 families who expressed frustration about the public narrative regarding Latino families.
The letter was organized by SFUSD parent Dheyanira Calahorrano. She had taken time off work to attend a seven hour long school board meeting in hope of making a comment. Instead, she heard Commissioner Lopez state that Latino families didn’t want their children to return to school. Calahorrano and the other parents found this claim to be irresponsible and a damaging misrepresentation of their experience and needs.
“We told them we had been talking with the many working families who were experiencing the devastating consequences of distance learning and wanted a plan for a safe return as soon as possible. We told them that many of us were losing income because one parent had to stay home to assist with learning,” said Calahorrano.
“We told them we were struggling with our own insomnia, anxiety, and depression as we watched our children fall behind academically and disengage from learning. We let them know that our children were struggling to pass the [English Language Proficiency Assessments for California] ELPAC test because they weren’t adequately prepared for it.
We told them how our children were suffering from anxiety, social isolation, and negative physical effects like weight gain from being so sedentary without access to nutritious snacks and safe places to exercise and interact with other children. We told them how hard distance learning was due to the lack of sufficient technology training our teachers had received from the district.”
Calahorrano added that although they appreciated the hard work the teachers did, the families found the learning expectations unrealistic. “Some teachers were requiring cameras to be turned on to track attendance, expecting every assignment to be completed, giving tests that determine our children’s academic future, and penalizing families without sufficient quiet learning space, accessible WIFI, technological fluency and English literacy, to name a few.”
The letter also asked that the families be heard and better represented by the district and the Latino Task Force and requested an opportunity to meet them and discuss the families’ challenges and perspectives.
The BOE did not respond.
There was one meeting that ultimately took place with Commissioner Lopez, after it was requested by Decreasing the Distance, a volunteer organization advocating “for equitable education solutions on behalf of SFUSD parents,” but it did nothing to change BOE’s public narrative about the desires of Latino families.
On November 30, 2020, Calahorrano sent a follow-up email to the commissioners, excerpt below:
Dear Board of Education Commissioners,
My name is Dheyanira Calahorrano and I’m a parent of a 6th grader at Everett Middle School. I am a single working mom, and I represent my fellow Mission Latino parents with this message.
We ask you to continue to work on the plan for safe reopening, as planning requires much time and effort, and in some time, community spread will decrease again. We ask that the district still complete the reopening plan for bringing ALL students (who want that choice) — back to school, and for you to vote and approve the plan.
We also ask that you help us improve and adjust the distance learning while we are waiting for reopening. My son just received Cs and Fs. He says he is trash, that he is failing, he thinks he is the problem. This is creating an emotional and psychological impact on our children.
If the district is not opening schools to take care of our health then please take in consideration all perspectives and the health problems caused by the use of technology, and isolation. We are already facing health issues and some of the other parents and I want to help fix these problems but we need your help, too.
Since we already have to reduce our work and leave our jobs to help with distance learning, we want to create our own outdoor program to support our kids’ school and learning. We are working on a plan and we need your support.
We want to do this with SFUSD. Will you help us?
Again, no one from the BOE responded.
THEY IGNORED THEIR OWN SURVEYS
It wasn’t only direct communication from Latino families the BOE ignored. They also turned a blind eye to their own data. SFUSD sent out two surveys during the 2020–2021 school year about returning to in-person learning.
The results showed that nearly 2500 Latino families wanted their kids back in school, compared to ~2000 White families and ~1500 Asian families. Again, you would have never known this from listening to the school board.
In their January review of the school reopening plan, the Board of Education called out that white families’ desire to return to in-person learning was “significantly higher” than other ethnic groups. But they never acknowledged that 60% of Latino families also wanted to return.
IN-PERSON SCHOOL MATTERS
Meanwhile, Policy Analysis for California Education looked at 50,000 students from 18 school districts and found the greatest losses were with English language learners (ELLs) and students from low-income families. Of the 910 SFUSD students who attended fewer than 40 percent of their virtual classes in Fall 2020, 32 percent were ELLs.
The damage to these kids could very likely last years. Learning loss typically costs the average child between $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings. And again, this number is higher for Black and Latino students than for white students — as much as twice as great.
In addition to career opportunities and earning potential, lifespan could also be impacted. People with less education tend to die younger. In one 30-year study, 13% of participants with a high school degree or less had died, compared to just 5% of college graduates.
SFUSD has admitted that it lost touch with approximately 8,800 students during the 2020–21 school year. It’s no wonder that Calahorrano and other SFUSD Latino parents remain “very concerned” about the behavior of the school board. “Our kids are not receiving the support they need. The upcoming school year is going to be very challenging,” said Calahorrano.
SFUSD claims among its core values to be “diversity driven” and “student centered.” Now is the time to hold the Board of Education accountable both to those values and for the collateral damage caused by the school closures they perpetuated.
Help every child in San Francisco get a good education, and sign a petition to recall the San Francisco School Board today.