Disparities in education can crush aspirations in heart of Silicon Valley

Sunnyvale, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is home to such high-tech fixtures as Yahoo!, Juniper Networks, AMD and Applied Micro, plus aerospace/defense operations of Lockheed Martin and Honeywell. Yet few Latinos who grow up in their shadow are qualified to work for those companies.
The participation and proficiency rates for Algebra I for Latinos in Sunnyvale, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is well below the already low statewide average.The disconnect between aspirations and reality starts early. Only 10 percent of Latinos, who comprise 42 percent of students in Sunnyvale Elementary District, are proficient in algebra by the end of 8th grade, a key measure of getting students on track for a career in science, engineering and math.
Sunnyvale is not alone among the 54 school districts in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, which form Silicon Valley. The data for Latino and African American students “paints an alarming picture about the future for so many of these children. That’s the promise that we, as a community, have broken,” concludes the report “Broken Promises: The Children Left Behind In Silicon Valley,” released Wednesday by Innovate Public Schools, a new organization funded by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the Walton Foundation, which promotes charter schools and parental choice.
The report, by journalist Joanne Jacobs, focuses on Academic Performance Index scores, algebra proficiency rates by 8th grade, and the percentage of students who graduate with the courses required for admittance to the University of California and California State University by district and by school, drawing attention to those with the best and worst performances.
The overall rate of algebra proficiency for Latino children in Silicon Valley – 23 percent – compares with 57 percent for white children and 76 percent for Asian children. Surprisingly, given the Valley’s demand for tech workers, the Latino proficiency rate is 3 percent less than the statewide average for Latinos, according to Innovate Public Schools. That disparity reflects the family income and school district resource divide in Silicon Valley, which has a large number of basic aid districts ­– property rich, primarily white and Asian communities that raise more dollars per student than state funding provides. Some low-income, largely Hispanic districts in Silicon Valley could see $3,000 more per student if Gov. Brown’s school funding Local Control Funding Formula is adopted. (The proficiency statistics for African American students, though few in number in Silicon Valley, mirror those of Latinos.)
There are also vast disparities in enrollment rates in algebra. In San Jose Unified, 22 percent of Latino children were proficient by 8th grade, but 90 percent took the course; in Santa Clara, 11 percent were proficient, while only 22 percent took the course. In largely low-income Gilroy Unified, one of the more successful districts for algebra, 38 percent were proficient, with about 60 percent taking the course.
A number of recent studies (here and here) have shown the harm from enrolling students in algebra unprepared; only about one out of six students who repeat algebra end up scoring proficient the second time around. But holding students back until 9th grade is no assurance they’ll do better either. Most of Sunnyvale’s students enroll in two high schools in the Fremont Union High School District, where only 11 percent of Latino 9th graders in Algebra I scored proficient, according to the report. And studies have concluded that some districts should have been assigning more Latino students to algebra earlier.
Good teaching in early grades is critical. The promise of the switch to the Common Core standards is that students will have a better grasp of fundamentals before taking full-blown algebra, most likely in 9th grade. What’s unclear is the impact that taking algebra in 9th grade will have on students who want to major in STEM in college or attend a UC school; unless they double up in high school, they won’t have taken calculus before graduating. Some Silicon Valley districts – particularly those with parents in high tech – will likely continue to encourage Algebra I in 8th grade. The report raises the question of whether the gulf in math achievement among underserved minorities could widen under Common Core.
There are middle schools whose Latino students far exceed the averages for algebra proficiency, elementary schools with high APIs and high schools that excel in preparing Latino students for four-year college. Many are charter schools, like Rocketship’s K-5 schools in San Jose, KIPP Heartwood middle school in the Alum Rock school district in San Jose and Summit Preparatory High School in Redwood City.
Alum Rock, long considered an academic backwater in East San Jose, has four of the five middle schools with the highest Algebra I proficiency rates for Latinos, including two semi-autonomous schools that the district started under parent pressure, and ACE Charter School, which recruits struggling students out of elementary school. The fifth middle school is in Gilroy.
The report calculated the percentage of students completing the courses, known as A to G, required for admission to UC and CSU campuses, based on the four-year graduation rate. Source: Innovate Public Schools.The  report calculates the A-G completion rate using the four-year graduation rate, based on the cohort that entered 9th grade, reflecting dropouts along the way; the state calculates the rate based only on the senior class, a higher rate. The Silicon Valley four-year rate with A-G completion for Latinos of 20.2 percent (combining 26 percent in San Mateo County and 15 percent in Santa Clara County) is 0.3 percent less than the statewide average, according to Innovate Public Schools.
Here, too, six of the top 10 high schools for Latinos are charters, along with four district schools (Jefferson High in Jefferson Union, Lincoln High in San Jose Unified, Half Moon Bay High and Capuchino High in San Mateo Union). The report profiles three of the high-achieving schools and outlines strategies that others use. Summit Prep, for example, assigns to every student a mentor teacher who serves as college counselor, coach and advocate; struggling students get extra help during two month-long intercessions.
But for many Latino students, the report says, ambitions are cut short, starting when they fall behind in reading by third grade and math in middle school.
“These young people don’t have the reading, writing, math and science competence to study programming, accounting or nursing at San Jose State. They’re not prepared to train for a computer networking job at Foothill College.”
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