How a reporter kickstarted the conversation on black students’ struggle for equity in SF’s public schools

Published on
May 9, 2019

As a journalist, I was out of my depth and definitely out of my comfort zone. But after weeks of furious planning I looked around the Hall of Culture — a gorgeous ballroom in San Francisco’s African American Art and Culture Complex — and realized we had pulled it off.

More than 200 people packed the space for “Learning While Black in SFUSD,” an event focused on the challenges African American students and families face while navigating San Francisco Unified’s special education system. The title was drawn from my fellowship project, “Learning While Black: The Fight for Equity in San Francisco Schools,” an ongoing series of audio stories for KALW-FM’s news magazine, Crosscurrents.

I took on the topic after the release of academic test scores in late 2017 prompted widespread concern in San Francisco’s black community.  What struck me was how little had changed: Over the past four decades, the achievement gap between African American students (the lowest preforming group) and the highest performing students has hardly narrowed. Rather than examine test scores, I set out to explore structural and historical inequities that have hampered black student success, and to tell stories that showcased the experiences of black students and families.

In a city that has been rapidly losing its black middle class, challenges for those who remain are heightened by poverty, isolation and lingering systemic bias, my reporting found. The series explored an innovative effort to boost the academic success of students who live in some of the city’s public housing projects — by embedding “educational liaisons” there to support not just the kids but their families. It probed the experiences of three generations of one family that attended San Francisco public schools, and it brought to light teacher and staff turnover in the historically black Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. The most groundbreaking piece — a  show-length documentary —  delved into a four-decade legacy of mistreatment of black students in special education, where they remain significantly overrepresented in certain categories. That topic became the central theme of the event I convened in March, with more than a half-dozen community partners to explore the challenges that persist today.

The evening featured a resource fair, where eight organizations provided outreach and information to families on how to navigate the special ed system and understand their legal rights. Staff from San Francisco Unified’s special education department were there to listen and learn. They also acted as “scribes” to record the input of families who participated in roundtable conversations about how the system is broken and what it will take to fix it. (The district’s special education director told event planners she is “committed to the future hard work toward reparations” of past damage done.)

The event’s main draw was a moderated panel discussion with Darryl Lester, the lead plaintiff in a seminal class-action lawsuit filed in the 1970s against district and state education officials. Known as the “Larry P” case for the pseudonym used to protect Darryl’s privacy, it exposed grave injustices in the treatment of black students who, through the use of culturally-biased IQ tests, were improperly steered into dead-end classes in a special ed category called “educable mentally retarded.” The case led to a statewide ban on intelligence testing of black students for purposes of special ed placement that remains in place today.

Lester is 60 years old now, and had never told his story before I tracked him down. As soon as I did, I realized how much his experience still resonates. Despite California’s testing ban and strong state and federal legal protections for special education students, my reporting found that San Francisco Unified still fails to properly identify the reasons why black students struggle in school or offer appropriate supports. Instead, children are mislabeled as behavior problems or written off as less-than-capable.

I began to wonder whether Lester’s story could help current families open up and tell their own. I realized I had just struck gold. I had found the man who could serve as a catalyst for a critical and sensitive community conversation.

Still, partnering with community and parent organizations, some of whom had served as my sources and likely will in the future, was fraught with complications for me as a long-time journalist. Fortunately, I was able to talk it all through with The Center for Health Journalism’s engagement editor, Olivia Henry, who helped me to understand my role. I repeated her words to myself like a mantra: I’m the convener. I’m helping to facilitate a crucial public conversation.  I’m partnering with the community. 

That community engagement approach had already helped my reporting. As a white journalist covering a painful topic in a community that is not my own, building trust was challenging. But I kept showing up, at community events, at schools to talk with students, at school board meetings, public housing events, and at the monthly meetings of the school district’s African American Parent Advisory Council.

I made mistakes: Early on, I crafted an online survey for black parents and guardians to probe their experiences with the special ed system. No one filled it out.  But it worked as a conversation starter. And the community gatekeepers began to trust me. That was key, because they would become my partners in the event. 

My biggest struggle came over the subject of funding. Lester and his wife live in Tacoma. Someone would have to pay for their trip to San Francisco. I realized I needed to cast a net for partners first and leave the money matters to them. It felt awkward. My first solid partnership, with the district’s quasi-independent African American Parent Advisory Council (AAPAC), relieved me of some of those duties when the program director stepped up help with planning and fundraising, allowing me to focus on bringing other community partners on board. Ultimately eight partners came together. As the media sponsor of the event, KALW agreed to cover the audio tech for the evening, at $120. That was the extent of our contribution and it felt appropriate. 

When I briefed KALW’s news director and managing editor, they were a bit confused. Why wasn’t I moderating the panel? Why wasn’t I on the panel talking about my reporting? Why  wasn’t I at least delivering the welcome? The answer was, I was the convener. I am white. I wanted as much as possible for this event to be of and by the community.  

As a group, we faced another challenge.  We began to worry that white stakeholders would edge out the target families. So we closed registration early to save spots for walk-ins. Sheryl  Davis, executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, explained the challenge this way during her powerful introductory message: Many black families have been so deeply marginalized in San Francisco that they “don’t feel welcome, even in places where we say  they  are supposed to be.” She told every person seated in the room that they had been deputized to continue the work.  

“Tonight is about how do we make people feel welcome,” she said. “How do we make them feel comfortable going to get the services they need and how do we make sure that everyone who is in this room is able to help support someone else to become an advocate for themselves.”

Many of the community partners came together at our collective table for the first time. Many have pledged to continue working together to host smaller, more intimate neighborhood-based events, and to press the district to undertake a full-scale review of its special ed practices. They include special education advocates eager to serve more black families, and grassroots black community organizations eager to help their families find support. As for me, I’m still puzzling through my continued role, but plan to stay close to the process and report on what emerges.   

For my fellow journalists, I offer this advice: Leave plenty of time for planning, make it clear from your very first outreach to community partners that the fundraising is on them, and try to delineate a concrete path forward in advance for the community collaboration and your own continued role.