August 1, 2012
Written By Claudia Luz Suarez
Recently, the Oakland Tribune released graduation and dropout data on students they’ve been tracking since 2007. As a recent graduate from East Oakland School of the Arts, one of Castlemont’s small schools, the rate for my school was not surprising. Many students in my class did not make it to graduation day. The graduation rate was only 3% higher than the dropout rate: 46% versus 43%. Oakland has been in the spotlight these past few years because of its low graduation rates and its high crime and homicide rates. These problems correlate with each other. One could say violence leads to low graduation rates, but the lack of education also leads to increased violence.
However, I think the problem is much more complex than that. The Oakland educational system has been suffering a lot, but many of the causes have gone unnoticed because not everyone is aware of them. Inequities by design, structural racism, and environmental injustice have been contributing to this dropout crisis in Oakland in major ways.
Imagine trying to get an education in an environment where you are already set up to fail. There hasn’t been a time in my whole 12 year journey through the Oakland Unified School District that I felt I had access to enough resources. My question has always been: why aren’t low-income communities getting the resources higher-income folks get? We have always been in need of essential school resources while higher income communities are living a comfortable life - Mac laptops, trips to Washington D.C., books without graffiti, and an abundance of AP classes. It always comes down to one thing: TEST SCORES. But how can we be successful in achieving these high test scores when we don’t have the resources needed to get the,? This is how we know the system is already built for low-income communities to fail. They deprive us of resources that often make our drop-out rates almost impossible to overcome, while feeding us an empty promise of, "Get these high test scores and you too can get the funding you need!” The people most affected always seem to be black and brown, and that is not a coincidence either.
One term to describe what is happening is called “Inequity by Design.” Inequity by design is a term used to describe a system or a plan that is built to purposely perpetuate injustice. Those bearing the brunt of this injustice are struggling students in low-income communities. In a short film I watched called, "Bring your A Game,” the narrator discussed African American males in communities like Oakland and the path to prisons. When determining how many prisons to build, he said African American 4th grade reading skills were used. If the students were reading at a low level, more prisons were to be built. Throughout the continuing years, as students become more and more part of the system, it gets really frustrating when faced with the robotic school structure and sometimes the only response left is to be angry. When I’m in class, i’ve seen that it is common for students to lash out and snap at teachers for simple things. Except, it’s not so simple -- my peers are on probation. They are in the foster care system. They are from East Oakland. They are mothers and fathers. Some are pissed off because they don’t think they will graduate high school due to being so absent. They are facing issues that they carry to school. Kids lash out and face getting suspended, therefore missing school.
When systems of power have created a structure that isn’t fair due to the disadvantages and privileges certain people have, the disadvantaged aren’t given equal opportunity to succeed. In Oakland, the impacts of inequity by design burdens our city, and is highly connected to our educational system and educational outcomes.
For example, the SAT’s, a test most students take to go to college, is a test ultimately based on how well you’ve studied, and your preparedness on the subject. There are some students with parents who are willing to pay thousands of dollars for SAT preparation classes and there are students, like my peers and I, who got 1 week of SAT preparation that our AP teacher -- who taught this course voluntarily because the school gave no funding for AP courses -- put together the week before our test day. The SAT score is a vital piece in your college application, and students from low-income backgrounds do not have the same opportunity to truly thrive in this section.
Where there are high drop-out rates, there is also a low average of students that continue to pursue a higher education. Before my brother dropped out of school his senior year, I tried to get him to apply to a California State University. He told me he was serious about doing it until I outlined all the things he had to do beforehand (i.e ask a counselor if you’re A-G Eligible, get a fee waiver for the SAT’s, research schools, do FAFSA). So discouraged, he wasn’t sure if he’d meet the A-G criteria, or be able to sit through a 4 hour test.
Systems like this indirectly affect the dropout crisis in Oakland, beginning with discouragement after failing a test or feeling stupid because you don’t understand material you never learned, while having little support in the community to continue trying after being rejected by the system. Not to mention, so many of my friends have faced a situation when a counselor has looked them in the eye and told them, “you are not good enough for college.” With many statistics saying that we won’t graduate, the youth in Oakland are carrying and always fighting these low expectations that are present, always, in the back of our minds.
Structural racism is yet another factor that has joined forces with inequity by design to cause barriers for youth in Oakland. The students and the curriculums have failed to connect because we are being taught along the lines of the Western Canon in a community with mostly people of color. These are euro-centric studies being taught to students of color who are in a community where they face struggles that are being ignored in lectures. How can a student concentrate on Shakespeare’s tragedy, when they’re facing their own tragedy? How can a student read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when they themselves are African Americans reading stories of their own people's dehumanization? This has always been a recurring conversation between my brother and I, “why don’t you just go back to school?” I ask him over again, and his response never falters, “I can’t go back there because I never learn anything. It’s not challenging, and it’s so repetitive I get bored.” When there is a lack of ethnic studies in an environment that is so ethnically diverse, students can’t find any relevance or connection to their studies, and can’t focus or do their work. So if we ask ourselves why students in Oakland stop going to class? It has a lot to do with the fact that what they are learning just doesn’t feel important.
The environment we are raised in affects us not only externally, but internally. Apart from the way it teaches us to speak, behave, and dress, it is also changing the way our bodies function. With the Port of Oakland spewing chemicals and toxins into West Oakland, and the growth of liquor stores block by block, Oakland citizens suffer many environmental injustices. One big issue is our access to food: do we have healthy food in our bodies throughout the week? Or is it damaging our bodies and our ability to think and process normally? Another factor contributing negatively to the environment Oakland residents live in: A lifetime of constant stress. With such high percentages of students coming from low-income families, major conflicts students face include having a place to sleep, food to eat, or stress from the cyclical violence. From high-levels of stress that aren’t relieved, come illnesses. Especially in school, a lot of my peers are dealing with the loss of a friend or family member. Not everyone makes it to senior year, and therefore students don’t feel good in their bodies because they aren’t mentally healthy. Putting the body through non-stop high-levels of stress and trauma has tragic outcomes, sometimes beginning with having to dropout of school because you can't seem to remember why It’s important to be there in the first place.
As I’ve mentioned before, it is far too easy to overlook these topics, as they can sometimes be incognito, yet very evident wen you look close in the way students carry themselves to and from school. It is very true that often students themselves don’t know that they are playing cards with a messed up system that has created two different maps for attempting to reach the same destination. And even though our map lacks shortcuts and straight paths, the best way to keep students rising above these injustices is to teach them that no matter what path you take, whether it was 10 miles before the starting point, or way off the grid – the best way to beat the inequitable educational system is by laughing in its face with not only a high school diploma, but your college degree.