…And (Quality) Education For All


By Milo Levine

Four years ago, when senior Tre’chaun Berkley first came to Tam from Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, he was nervous. “I felt that I wasn’t ready. Coming from a class with 11 students to a class with 20 is something I had to get used to,” he said. “On top of that, [I worried about] not knowing how to speak with the people in my class, because I don’t speak as proper [as them], so they wouldn’t probably understand me or they would make fun [of] the way I say something,” he said. Berkley is not alone. Many students of color that come to Tam from Marin City experience societal and systemic hardships that disrupt their educational experience.

We live in Marin County: the 17th wealthiest county in the country, and also one of the most segregated.

This segregation manifests itself in what teachers and administrators call “the academic achievement gap.” According to the Glossary of Education Reform, an achievement gap is “any significant and persistent disparity in academic performance or educational attainment between different groups of students, such as white students and minorities, or students from higher-income and lower-income households.”

This problem is very much alive in the Tam community. “The achievement gap correlates to socioeconomic status, and it is a countywide, statewide, and nationwide issue,” Sausalito Marin City School District (SMCSD) Board of Trustees President Joshua Barrow said. “This is not something new. It’s been around for decades.”

Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy (MLK) and charter school Willow Creek Academy (WCA) are both part of SMCSD. Mill Valley Middle School (MVMS) is part of the Mill Valley School District (MVSD). MLK and WCA teach students in grades K-8, while MVMS teaches students in grades 6-8. All three schools feed into Tam, and though they’re within four miles of each other, they couldn’t be more different.

The aforementioned schools differ significantly in statewide testing results. Student skill, knowledge, and achievement are largely measured by the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) scores. This test is given to students in grades 3-8 and 11. There is a large disparity in student performance when MLK and WCA are compared to MVMS. CAASPP determined that 77 percent of MVMS students are proficient in math, and 83 percent are proficient in English. In stark contrast, 25 percent of MLK students are proficient in math and 25 percent are proficient in English, well below the statewide average of 37 percent in math and 48 percent in English. WCA passed more students than the state’s average in both math and English, at 43 percent and 50 percent, respectively.

[infogram id=”the_achievement_gap_among_tam_feeder_schools”]

CAASPP also reports that 82 percent of MLK students and 40 percent of WCA students are either African American or Hispanic. These two demographics perform the lowest in both math and English testing at Tamalpais High School. According to CAASPP, 31 percent of Hispanic students are proficient in math and 36 percent are proficient in English, while only 17 percent of black students are proficient in math and only 23 percent are proficient in English.

These results are heavily influenced by both race and poverty, given that white Tam students from low-income families also receive significantly lower test scores when compared to the general population, but higher test scores than students of color.

Only 3 percent of African American students attending WCA are proficient in math, and only 10 percent are proficient in English. Among low-income students, who make up 42 percent of WCA’s population, 23 percent are proficient in math and 35 percent are proficient in English. At MLK, 17 percent of black students are proficient in math and 14 percent are proficient in English. While these statistics highlight SMCSD’s shortcomings, they also show that there is a significant racial element to the achievement gap.

The principal of MLK, Dr. Chappelle Griffin, did not respond to multiple email requests for comment.

At Tam, multiple former MLK students said they felt under-served by the teachers at MLK. Freshman Tyrell Atkinson went to MLK from grades K-7, but transferred to WCA for the 8th grade. “I learned a lot in math and English [at MLK], but in all the other [subjects] I didn’t,” Atkinson said. “The bad teachers let us do whatever we wanted, and we had a sub every week. [I received] average grades, even though I didn’t learn a lot from most teachers.”

The bad teachers let us do whatever we wanted, and we had a sub every week.

Atkinson said his school experience changed after he transferred. “At WCA they didn’t give us much homework like they did at MLK. The teachers were nice and taught us a lot. It was an improvement over MLK,” he said.

Unlike Atkinson, sophomore Daeshawn Burr attended MLK for the entirety of his pre-high school education. “MLK was academically bad for me,” he said. “They weren’t teaching us some stuff that we needed to learn. When I came to Tam I felt underprepared.”

Burr elaborated on his rough transition. “I had an F in [Algebra 1-2], both semesters last year,” he said. Although he admits that “I wasn’t pushing myself to do well,” he also added, “My [freshman math teacher] was kind of bad. She was all over the place. I went up to her to get help a few times, but she never helped me. I think she was probably busy.” Burr is now in Algebra Foundations.

Tam Social Studies teacher Dr. Claire Ernst defended Tam, in response to Burr’s claim that he was underserved by a school instructor. “Our job is to teach all students and to differentiate [instruction] so every every student can learn and succeed,” she said. “Math poses a lot of challenges in that regard, but our math department in general does a great job. A lot of support is available for kids that need it.”

However, Ernst does notice a pattern among the students who require the most additional academic support. “Broadly speaking, students that have been through MLK come in with fewer skills,” she said. If a student is struggling, Ernst said she will “meet [the student] at tutorial, restructure assignments, break things into smaller pieces, [and] individualize attention during class.”

Berkley, who came to Tam from MLK, also spoke about a rocky transition to high school. “I wanted to go [to MLK], because it was close to my house and in my neighborhood, [but] I didn’t feel prepared coming here from MLK,” he said. Berkley had a particularly challenging time upon arrival at Tam. “It was a bigger school and I didn’t know a lot of the students,” he said.

Senior Jaiana Harris, who went to MLK and WCA, has also experienced a fair amount of alienation at Tam. “At MLK everyone’s black, but [at Tam] you feel like an outsider,” Harris said. Multiple African American students expressed outrage over how welcomed they were by the Tam athletic community, only to then be rejected come schooltime.

“We are only important during sports, but when it comes to academics, they don’t care about us,” Harris said, as several nearby African American students chimed in with their agreement. “[Black students] are used for sports… and during the classroom, [there’s] no love for us,” Berkley added.

‘[Black students] are used for sports… and during the classroom, [there’s] no love for us.’

Racial issues arise frequently at Tam, unbeknownst to many non-minority members of the community.

“Students feel isolated, due to being black and alone in a class…You feel like you don’t belong,” principal J.C. Farr said. At Tam, events such as Breakthrough Day, which took place on February 27, can help the community unite to mend issues of racial segregation. However, many minority students felt that Breakthrough Day didn’t do enough. “I thought [Breakthrough Day] was a waste of time, because it was teachers running it instead of students, and all our teachers that ran it are white,” junior Pedro Mira said.

Another issue, according to freshman Ta’Naejah Reed, was a widespread indifference expressed by white students during the day’s activities. “I felt [Breakthrough Day] was good, but people couldn’t really connect. If you weren’t colored or weren’t a different race you didn’t really connect to it and it wasn’t that important,” she said.

Breakthrough Day may have catalyzed conversations about race at Tam, even though it evidently left plenty to be desired. Regardless, the Tam administration is actively exploring race and poverty, with regards to the achievement gap. “It’s a very complex issue,” Farr said. “Some of it is due to preparation and the quality of middle school education.”

Farr went on to explain one problem in particular that MLK recently faced. “They went months without having a single math teacher for the 8th grade. Those who even receive instruction are greatly advantaged,” he said.

Berkley has experienced firsthand MLK’s chaotic teacher turnover. “There were so many teacher switches at MLK. There were always new teachers and subs. It was confusing,” he said. Almost every former MLK student interviewed mentioned teacher turnover as a substantial difficulty.

SMCSD has had an ongoing problem with teacher turnover, especially as of late. “Sausalito Marin City is a revolving door district. Statistically, having good teachers is the most important thing, and there is definitely more turnover than you want to see,” Barrow said.

Referring to MLK’s math teaching vacancy, Barrow said they had had a teacher lined up to fill the position, but he quit unexpectedly after a week.

“I don’t know the reasons why he left. It could have been culture shock. Maybe he had another job lined up. It takes a special kind of teacher to operate in this environment,” Barrow said. “Money doesn’t drive the turnover. People just like to be involved in something successful.”

‘Money doesn’t drive the turnover. People just like to be involved in something successful.’

The Shanker Institute reported significantly higher turnover rates at schools with a large disadvantaged population, compared to schools with a smaller disadvantaged population. When 34 percent or less of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch, teacher turnover rates average 12.8 percent per year. At schools where upwards of 75 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, teacher turnover rates nearly double, to an average of 22 percent per year.

Acknowledging that “all teachers are special in their own right,” Barrow listed some of the qualities that make a person a good fit for working at MLK. “[They need a] desire to work with low-income and minority students, cultural awareness and sensitivity, particularly with African American, Hispanic, and the many other ethnic groups we serve, [and the] ability to work in a small district which may not have the specialization, process maturity, systems, or support structures of a large district,” he said.

In a research analysis report, the Center for Public Education corroborated Barrow’s analysis, suggesting that a good teacher is integral to student success. “Research consistently shows that teacher quality—whether measured by content knowledge, experience, training and credentials, or general intellectual skills—is strongly related to student achievement: Simply, skilled teachers produce better student results,” the organization reported.

Tam has recently taken on an active role in trying to stop MLK’s teacher carousel. “[Math department teacher leader] David Wetzel was assigned to teach at MLK, part time, for the semester,” Farr said.

“MLK, for over a year, did not have a math teacher, so I asked the school to let me go over there to teach math and they said yes. I have been teaching there [part time] since the start of the semester,” Wetzel said.

This is not the first time Wetzel has sought to help the academically challenged school. “Ten years ago, students coming [to Tam] from MLK were underperforming, so we started the MLK Math Transition Program, and MLK student’s performance went up,” he said. “Then SMCSD canceled the program, after three years, and performance went down again.” Wetzel and Barrow both said that they did not know why the program had been cancelled.

Regardless, things are now looking up for MLK 8th graders, according to Wetzel. “The students are very grateful and positive now that they have a math teacher again. They are working very hard to learn as much material as possible,” he said. From SMCSD’s point of view, Barrow said, “The Wetzel situation is kind of like a band-aid. It’s a temporary fix.”

Teacher pay could be a factor in SMCSD’s turnover problem, given that teachers at MVMS have a higher average salary than teachers MLK or WCA. However, it would appear that funding in general is not the main driving force behind the district’s poor academic performance. “On dollars per student, SMCSD is far ahead of MVSD, even after all of Kiddo’s contributions,” said Barrow.

Kiddo, which Barrow is referring to, is a nonprofit founded in 1982 that funds all Mill Valley School District (MVSD) campuses, covering kids from kindergarten to 8th grade. In the 2015-2016 school year alone, Kiddo raised almost $3.5 million for the district. A vast majority of this money goes straight into the schools.

Barrow is convinced that there are many other causes at play, unrelated to finances. “It’s not all about money. It’s about leadership, structure, consistency, and many other factors,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that Kiddo is why MVSD is doing so great. It helps, but it’s not primary, and I don’t know what they’re doing right, but I do know that they have [a greater] size and a [smaller] disadvantaged population.”  

Students who come from low-income families face many academic obstacles. In their book about improving school performance, William Parrett and Kathleen Budge, both of whom have Ph.Ds in the educational field, wrote that “[Students living in poverty] may have limited access to high-quality day care, limited access to before-or after-school care, and limited physical space in their homes to create private or quiet environments conducive to study.” They also reported that economic privilege manifests itself early, and those who don’t have it suffer from the start. “…Substandard housing, inadequate medical care, and poor nutrition can affect the rate of childhood disease, premature births, and low birth weights, all of which affect a child’s physical and cognitive development,” they wrote.

In addition to navigating potential stressors at home, many students reported struggling with an environment at MLK that they did not find conducive to learning. “It was so easy to get in trouble there. It’s a small classroom, with all of your friends. A lot of students in there were messing around and stopping the class,” Berkley said. When faculty tried to intervene with students’ misbehavior, Berkley felt that it sometimes made things worse.

“[I had an] English teacher [who] was too busy punishing kids that she didn’t teach us anything,” he said.

‘[I had an] English teacher [who] was too busy punishing kids that she didn’t teach us anything.’

Berkley was not the only MLK alum whose experience was marred significantly by feuds between the students and the adults. Many felt that the constant conflict hampered their ability to learn much at all.

On the other end of the spectrum, MVMS alumna and current Tam sophomore Alexis Detjen-Creson said, “The school [MVMS] made sure that you did well. If you were struggling, the teacher would talk to you in private about getting your performance back on track.”

Compounding the inequities between the two districts is the contrast in their sizes. Because MVSD has a massive population of around 3,400 students, compared to the relatively tiny SMCSD population of 540 students, it has more resources and can operate more efficiently. “[SMCSD] is one of the smallest [districts] in Marin. There are nineteen school districts in the county. We need to fix that,” Barrow said.

Barrow has started a committee to try to combine SMCSD and MVSD into one district. “To consolidate like this, you need to hold a vote on it. If it got through, the governing board and the voters would be invested in improving Sausalito Marin City student’s performance. The community at large would be pushing for this betterment,” Barrow said. The community, in this case, would be families from Sausalito, Marin City, and Mill Valley, all working together to accomplish the same goal: improving academic success. The issue has not yet been brought to a vote; however, for the measure to pass, two-thirds of voters would have to approve it, a tall order for any bill.

SMCSD has been subject to a fair amount of controversy as of late, primarily due to the release of a Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) report, an organization that investigates the financial status of local educational agencies. Published on August 10, 2016, the report concluded that: “The district has not met the needs of students at Bayside MLK, and the result is that students are underachieving.” More specifically, MLK students are scoring well below average in statewide testing, in addition to being outperformed by their own district counterpart: WCA.

The assessment has since been disputed by SMCSD, who stated on their website that “The report was called into question by the Sausalito Marin City School District Board of Trustees, as it contained several factual inaccuracies and unfounded allegations.”

The political controversy surrounding SMCSD can distract from the most important issue: the well-being and success of the students. There are some external organizations that are actively helping out, such as Marin Promise, which aims to propel disadvantaged students through high school and into college. There has been an increased effort to improve student’s 9th grade math readiness, and Wetzel is currently working with the group to find solutions.

Another group is Bridge the Gap College Prep, which is a “college preparatory and youth development organization that provides programming aimed at preparing Marin City students for college success,” according to their mission statement.

The effectiveness of such programs cannot accurately be measured at this time, due to a lack of available information and statistics from said non-profits.

Barrow has made an effort to address the matter at an earlier grade level “By high school, it’s too late to integrate low and high income students,” he said.

‘By high school, it’s too late to integrate low and high income students.’

Measure A of 2016, a bill that would have, among many other things, created low price or free preschool for underserved children in Marin County, failed. This was a great disappointment for Barrow, who was hoping to improve kid’s readiness for kindergarten.

The Marin GOP was a staunch opponent of Measure A, due to a common conservative opposition to welfare expansion. This may have resulted in the failure of the bill, even in a predominantly liberal area.

Granted, it’s best to confront the achievement gap with younger kids, but high schools still have to take responsibility for their role in the issue, according to Farr. “We are amping up transition programs over the summer, to build up student’s skills,” said Principal Farr. “[It has taken me] some time to try and develop an understanding of the situation.” Farr wants the Tam community to know that “We’re committed to addressing the achievement gap.”

Despite facing many obstacles throughout his educational career, Senior Tre’chaun Berkley is now looking to move forward, via higher education. After looking into various options, he finally made his decision. “I’m going to go to a community college, then [I’ll] transfer into a university after two years,” Berkley said. Reflecting on his time in high school, he added, “For the future [minority] students [at Tam], I want to say look to be a leader, [not] a follower.”